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In this post we are going to cover one of the most documented and studied airborne contaminates in the work place to date – Solder Fume.

Soldering is still a major process in the electronics industries and the dangers of solder fume are well known.

We have covered what a “fume” is in many articles and posts on our website. We know a fume is made from heating up solid matter to the point it “vaporises”. We know around 90 – 95% of a fume is solid particulate with around 5 – 10% being gases and vapours.

Solder fume is no different, but it has been studied probably in more depth than most types of fume in the work place. It does not matter whether you are using Rosin based solder, Rosin free solder, Lead based solder or Lead free solder – the process of soldering produces harmful airborne contaminates that are hazardous to our health.

To understand why it harms us and how we can control it we need to know what makes up a solder fume and how it behaves.

What is solder fume?

Fumes from hand soldering is the plume of “smoke” that is created during a soldering process when the solder flux is heated above 183oC. The “smoke” is a complex mixture of 95% solid particulates and 5% gases and vapours.

The solid particulates are made up from parts of the solder flux itself. A solder fume from Rosin based solder even has its own name – Colophony Fume. But even if you are using Rosin free solder, then the replacement materials still produce a fume.

The gases, even though a small amount, can include: Acetones, Methyl Alcohol, Formaldehyde, Carbon Dioxide, Diterpene Acid, Carbon Monoxide and Isopropanol Alcohol.

How does this affect your health?

Most of the Gases listed above have well documented adverse effects on our health. The dangers of Carbon Monoxide are very well documented and Formaldehyde has been linked with causing serious breathing problems, has been linked to cancer, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), damage to the nervous system, nausea, vomiting, mood changes and depression, insomnia…. the list goes on.

The solid particulates, regardless if they are “Non-Toxic” or “Clean” are still foreign bodies in your lungs. The largest particulate in solder fume is around 10 microns and the smallest is around 0.3 microns.

The average human hair is around 100 microns and human eyes can see below 30 microns unaided.

This means the solid particulates – fine dust basically – are small enough to pass into the deep workings of your lungs, into the soft tissues and gas exchange chambers. Here it becomes lodged, here it causes irreparable damage to your lungs.

Interstitial Lung Diseases (ILD’s) are a common effect from long term exposure to dust particulates that get into the deep workings of your lungs. ILD’s are uncurable and the damage is permeant.

Other symptoms from exposure can include runny eyes and nose, sore throat and mouth, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, increased susceptibility of respiratory infections, headaches, dermatitis and more.

Fumes from soldering are also recorded as being a high cause of Occupational Asthma.

All of these can lead to hidden costs – absent employees, reduced productivity due to absenteeism, high staff turnover, re-training costs and in some case fines and compensation claims.

How do we prevent exposure?

Like the dangers of solder flux fume, exposure control is also well documented. The answer is simple – Extraction.

Solder fume is predictable. Fumes naturally rise up on the thermal effect from the vaporization source – they rise on the hot air. During soldering, an operator will generally be hunched over the components they are working in and have their face close to the soldering point, this means their breathing space is directly in the path of the rising fume.

Extraction for soldering is predominately handled in two ways: Arm extraction or Tip extraction.

Tip extraction for soldering uses metal tubes mounted directly on the solder iron. The solder extraction tubes connect to a small-bore silicon hose which connects to a dedicated single extraction unit or, for more than one or two stations, to a central, small bore duct, back to a high-pressure tip extraction unit with filters in.

Tip extraction was popular as it gets as close as it is possible to get to the source of the fume i.e. right on the end of the solder iron. The downside of tip extraction is the maintenance. The ends of the steel tubes can quickly block, as can the silicone tubes as the fume condenses in the pipework. The silicon tubes are also prone to kinking. Tip extraction systems need regularly cleaning every shift, this can lead to longer down times.

Arm extraction is just that, a bench mounted extraction arm with a nozzle on the end sits above and just behind the work station. The arm uses higher volumes of air (as opposed to tip extractions high pressure) to drag the plume back and away from the operator. Arm extraction is the most popular form of solder extraction nowadays. As long as the arm is placed properly the extraction system is highly effective, quicker than most tip extraction and needs minimal maintenance.

More information on Extraction for Soldering, speak to one of our experts today.

You can view a selection of solder extraction products by clinking the image below.
Soldering Products
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