EU Decision on Lead in Alloys Brings Relief

On both sides of the Atlantic, metal removal fluid suppliers and their customers are relieved by the European Unions extension of regulatory exemptions for lead in steel, aluminum and copper alloys.

On May 18, the Official Journal of the European Union published directives that allow continuation of lead levels in steel, aluminum and copper alloys used in the manufacturing of electrical and electronic products. These directives officially extend exemptions from RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) regulations. These so-called lead exemptions are particularly important to the metalworking industry because they allow continued use of existing metalworking fluids in machining operations of these alloys.

Finally! Our precision machining shops now have certainty that leaded steel, aluminum and copper alloys for machining that meet requirements of the Directive will remain RoHS 2 compliant for the foreseeable future, exclaimed Miles Free, director of industry research and technology at the Cleveland-based Precision Machined Products Association, or PMPA.

This decision will greatly relieve out member companies, who have been dealing with paperwork and questions from their customers about alloys and metalworking fluids under RoHS 2 regulations.

Neil Canter, Philadelphia-based consultant at Chemical Solutions, told Lube Report, "The extension of the RoHS lead exemption is welcomed because the metalworking fluid industry will not have to offer reformulated fluids that may not perform in a satisfactory manner on low-lead alloys. Parliament's decision will give the metalworking fluid industry more time to fully evaluate products that they might need for those low-lead alloys if the exemption is not extended again beyond July 21, 2021."

This long-awaited decision capped a decade-long debate about RoHS, a directive of the European Parliament. First generation RoHS 1 declared lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chrome and several halogenated organic chemicals to be hazardous materials and restricted their use in the manufacture of electric and electronic equipment starting in 2006. The Parliament intended these limitations to reduce health and environmental risks and volumes of toxic electrical and electronic waste.

These regulations also had implications for supplies of European alloys to the United States, operations in American machine shops and global exports of component parts to the EU.

Lead enhances metal machinability. Traces of lead are added to steel, aluminum and copper alloys for rapid, accurate and efficient machining with currently available tools and metalworking fluids. The lead reduces friction between machine tools and parts, allowing faster production of parts and lower energy consumption.

Recognizing these advantages, Parliament granted temporary RoHS exemptions to permit the use of lead at levels up to 0.35 percent by weight in steel, 0.4 percent in aluminum, and 4 percent in copper alloys.

The second generation RoHS 2 regulations, adopted in 2011, called for the expiration of the original lead exemptions in 2016. Lead levels would be limited to no more than 0.1 percent in alloys destined for a broader range of finished products. It would have been necessary for chemists to reformulate metalworking and metal removal fluids for use with low-lead alloys and modified machining operations.

Instead, an application requesting extension of lead exemptions was filed in January 2015. The original exemptions remained in effect while the Parliament reconsidered their renewal. A decision was initially expected by January 2016.

One and a half years later, in September 2017, the Commission published Draft Directives that proposed continuing lead exemptions through July 2021 for alloys used in applications such as household appliances, electric tools and lighting equipment, and longer for medical devices and monitoring equipment. After considering feedback, the commission announced its final decision May 18.