March 22, 2006

European-style regulation and the dangerous pipe organ.

The NYT reports:
The new [European Union] directive, to come into force in July, limits the proportion of hazardous substances like lead, mercury or cadmium to 0.1 percent of a finished product that works on electricity.

"We are caught in an absurd anomaly," said Doug Levey, a spokesman for the Institute of British Organ Building, which says it represents most of the country's 400 organ builders in about 65 companies.

The directive, approved by European governments four years ago, was intended to address problems caused by the disposal of products like cellphones or computer circuit boards. Dumped in landfills, the argument goes, discarded items of consumer electronics pollute groundwater as hazardous substances are leached from them.

But no one, it seems, had thought of the organ builders, whose products make unlikely candidates for landfills. Disused organ pipes, some of them containing 50 percent lead or lead-tin alloy, are usually melted down for reuse, Mr. Levey said. New pipe organs, he said, can cost from $85,000 to $850,000 and upward.

A manually powered organ, Mr. Levey pointed out, would not be covered by the directive, no matter how much lead was used. However, he said, "if in the name of progress you use an electronic fan to provide the wind, the same organ with the same amount of lead falls within the restrictions."
But I'm thinking the pipe organ folks are making a big, windy noise, since there is a way to apply for an exemption. Instead of doing that, they're going to the press and complaining, stirring up the usual antipathy toward government regulation. Obviously, the concern about lead in landfills is valid. Just go get your exemption. And pipe down.

24 comments:

Pogo said...

Re: "Instead of doing that, they're going to the press and complaining, stirring up the usual antipathy toward government regulation."

1. The EU ministers are unelected, and show no evidence that they care about unintended consequences of overly-broad regulations. (Why did they not use terminilogy to target the precise technology they were addressing?)

2. Unless some organ maker is a friend of an EU overlord, it would likely take years to undo this regulatory error, too late for the survival of some manufacturers, I'd bet. Kvetching is just one avenue to seek redress, and mocking legislators is somewhat useful when your power is small.

3. Antipathy toward government regulation becomes "usual" precisely because a massive bureaucracy can be so isolated and unaccountable as to reliably produce ham-handed rules that unintentionally hurt people. Whoops.

4. It would have been far easier to demand that the manufacturers of the actual target devices be required to receive in trade the old cell phone when purchasing a replacement, or accept one for their disposal, and limit company disposal of items containing more than a certain limit of offending metals. This incents the manufacturers to cut the costs of disposal and steer towards safer manufacture. But nooooo. Instead, let's write regulations that cover things no one ever disposes of!

CB said...

Professor,
When I read "just go get your exemption," I immediately thought of Sam from Brazil trying to get the 27b/6 form from the Ministry of Information.

Palladian said...

Or we could designate one place in the world to be the main dumping ground for toxic substances and heavy metals, thus keeping the source of pollution confined to a small, unimportant geographic region, perhaps a place already polluted that no one would want to visit anyway. Here's a good candidate

Tom T. said...

{Beavis} Heh-heh. "Manually powered organ." Heh-heh. {/Beavis}

Ann Althouse said...

I agree that a key question is how hard it is to get the exemption, but this does seem to be a case of an odd and unanticipated inclusion in a regulation that was not itself carelessly overreaching.

ShadyCharacter said...

Are we supposed to believe that a regulatory monster that regulates the acceptable tomato chunk size for pasta sauce couldn't have more narrowly drafted their regulations?

Just remind them they could add another 360 pages of regulations to burden ordinary citizens and small businesses and I'm sure they'd jump at it. How else are they supposed to be able to stifle all economic activity on the contintent?

Jake said...

In the US, we would regulate the disposal of such items.

In the EU, they regulate the manufacture of the item. Thus they freeze into place the specifications for manufacture. If any producer wants to improve their product, they must get the regulation changed-an impossible task.

12 years of this type of rule making by the EU bureaucrats have discouraged innovation, contributed to widespread unemployment, and falling living standards.

Simon Kenton said...

The concern about lead in landfills is hype. It oxidizes, forming a nearly impervious casing, and remains inert. Even in rainy climates, lead is not and cannot be a serious groundwater pollutant. Its bioavailability via stomach acids is a far more serious problem. If you're going to have it in your body, it is much better to be shot than ingest some while eating someone else who has been shot. Cadmium and mercury are another story, but they aren't making organs from them. Neither should you.

peter hoh said...

But, dude, in the sixties, organ activists were so passionate. They weren't content to seek exceptions from oppressive regulations. They wanted full organ acceptance, and they wanted to liberate their organs from all restrictions.

Maybe the organ activists were too cocky back then. There was a bit of a backlash, of course, and I think that today's organ activists are trying to get ahead without being so in your face about it, but if you ask me, they won't get what they want that way.

Glenn Howes said...

Obviously, the concern about lead in landfills is valid.

Ann, could you explain to us your expertise in saying this concern is valid and not some enviro-histeria.

There is, obviously, a naturally occurring amount of lead in ground water which varies from place to place, oftentimes higher than in nearby landfills. Obviously, we have to live and adapt to this background level. There is going to be a finite amount of lead in the water we drink; the EU cannot regulate the laws of physics, probability, or the composition of the Earth's crust.

If the average background level of lead in European water was 25 micrograms per liter (just made that up), a "safe" level was considered 50 micrograms per liter, and landfills added 2 micrograms per liter above background, would it be worth $10 billion? Would it even be reliably measurable? It is not obvious to me that it would, but it is obvious to me that European bureaucrats have little regard for cost or utility, and that unless you've studied the problem in depth (perhaps you have), you shouldn't assume the obvious rationality of European governance.

Goesh said...

An 850K pipe organ? I had no idea...I got a crisp $20 says there will be an exemption.

Saganashkee said...

Re: "Instead of doing that, they're going to the press and complaining, stirring up the usual antipathy toward government regulation."

Of course pipe organ makers are going to cry to the press. When is the last time you read a "pipe organ" in a news story (not news release)in any context? Last one I can think of is when the venerable 0ld Chicago Stadium was torn down in the name of progress.It had a real pipe organ, not a giant MP3 machine. Many, including the Chicago Blackhawks (NHL hockey) and Chicago Bulls fans, viewed the destruction of the Chicago Stadium as truly evil act on the level of burning the Alexandria (Egypt)library about 1800 years ago. That old Chicago Stadium pipe organ still resonates loudly for a lot of us. I can still hear Wayne Messmer accompanied by that old venerable Wurlitzer singing the "Stars Spangled Banner", "Oh Canada", and "Here Come the Hawks".

Ann Althouse said...

Saganashkee: The last time I read about one, it was here, and the thing cost a lot more than $850,000. This is the real heavy metal music.

Palladian said...

Simon Kenton is correct, lead in metallic form (and in this case, alloyed with another metal), poses little danger to ground water. Lead does oxidize and form an impervious layer on its surface, which is why it was used for roof flashing, garden urns, water pipes, etc. As long as it is not abraded into dust, it's fairly safe. I suspect these regulations do not differentiate between lead in different forms, some of which do pose an environmental risk, such as large batteries or the worst one, tetraethyl lead, which was the "leaded" in leaded gasoline.

Ron said...

And pipe down. I can hear the rim shot at the end of that one!

Christy said...

Actual conversation I had about 15 years ago with an EPA guy (sadly, one of the brighter ones):

Me: Your rule is impossible. It's against the laws of physics.

He: The laws of physics don't matter here. I have to follow the law Congress passed.

Pogo said...

Maybe the EU should ban the earth's crust. Damn gaia, always throwing its weight around, like some planetary bully. Next, the EU can legislate water to freeze at a more convenient and uniform temperature; that 'atmospheric pressure' nonsense is just anarchy, I tell ya.

The EU ministers are looking more and more like Vogons every day.

PatCA said...

A little regulation is good; too much regulation is evil. Yes, the FAA should require pilots to deice aircraft wings in a winter storm. No, the EU should not regulate the production of materials that have not been proven dangerous by any credible science.

And, peter, stop being so heteronormative (too cocky)! :)

MadisonMan said...

the EU cannot regulate the laws of physics, probability, or the composition of the Earth's crust.

Oh, but it can try!

L. Ron Halfelven said...

Regulation's fine up to a point, but the EU is pulling out all the stops (another rimshot).

peter hoh said...

patca asked me to be a little less heteronormative. Okay, how's this:

Organ activists aim to stick it to the man.

Gaius Arbo said...

I demand we immediately repeal the law of gravity. It weighs us down people. All together now!

admin said...

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The Cranky Insomniac said...

What's wrong with stirring up antipathy towards government regulation?