EU Delays Decision on Lead in Alloys


Suppliers of metal alloys and metal removal fluids are waiting to see if the European Parliament will tighten limits on the use of lead in steel, aluminum and copper alloys. Metalworking fluid marketers will likely need to reformulate products if parliamentarians allow expiration of decade-old looser rules on the content of those metals.

At issue is the European Unions Restriction of the use of certain Hazardous Substances (RoHS) – which took effect in 2006 and which declared lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chrome and other substances to be hazardous. It outlawed the use of lead and certain other chemical elements in appliances, some consumer equipment, electric tools and other products.

However, the European Parliament ultimately added an exemption to RoHS that allowed lead levels up to 0.35 percent by weight in steel, 0.4 percent in aluminum and 4 percent in copper alloys. The exemptions justification was that traces of lead in alloys substantially reduce friction during machining processes. The benefits of lower friction include less thermal stress on tools and parts, faster machining operations, shorter cycle times, reduced electric power consumption and more forgiving conditions for metal removal fluids.

Photo: Lubrizol

In 2011, the European Parliament drafted a revision to RoHS, called RoHS 2. According to this draft, the original RoHS exemption on use of lead would expire on July 21, 2016. Thereafter, use of lead would be limited to no more than 0.1 percent by weight in alloys for a much broader range of products. Effects of this regulatory change would be felt on both sides of the Atlantic. American machine shops rely on European suppliers for leaded steels, aluminum alloys and brasses, and they export individual parts and components of assembled products to automotive, electronics and appliance markets in the European Union.

According to Miles Free, director of industry research and technology at the Precision Machined Products Association in Cleveland, one immediate effect would be an estimated 25 percent or greater reduction of machining speed efficiency and increased in electricity consumption. Additionally, Free said, the metalworking fluid industry would be hard pressed to reformulate metal removal fluids for low-lead alloys and scale up production of new products within the 12 to 18 month window.

An application requesting the renewal of the original exemption on lead in metal alloys was submitted in January 2015. The Parliament was expected to respond by January 2016 and either agree to renew the lead exemption or impose the 0.1 weight percent limitation within 12 to 18 months, sometime between Jan. 21 and July 21, 2017. Then, the parliament postponed its announcement of a ruling on the lead exemption until mid-April, 2016.

Free noted that lead is invaluable as an alloying element in steel, aluminum alloy, and brass components for aviation, electronics, medical devices and other critical applications. He warned that regulatory changes severely limiting lead content in alloys would adversely affect manufacturers of precision machined parts and their downstream customers.

Meanwhile, the website of the World Health Organization recommends removing lead from gasoline, paint, plumbing, and solder for food cans. WHO also recommends screening at-risk population groups to prevent consumer health crises such as leaching of lead from obsolete pipes into the water supply in Flint, Michigan.

Only time will tell how the European Parliament will weigh risks associated with production and applications of current stainless steels and other leaded metals versus potential replacement alloys and metal removal fluids.