Mattel's toy recall fiasco has highlighted the dangers of lead poisoning, and the European Union and other governments have passed laws banning the use of lead in fields that still use it, including electronics. But that has the tech industry worried: for decades, lead has been the only stopgap preventing complex electronics from developing "tin whiskers," splinters that bring gadgets to a halt.
Whiskers that develop on motherboards, for example, can break off and interfere with or ruin sensitive instruments like pacemakers, satellites, and even a space shuttle. But lawmakers want hazardous materials, including lead, out of dumps and incinerators. One IBM executive regretted the new laws but said, "It's whistling in the wind if you think we're turning this back."