Thursday, March 23, 2006

"La Folia," or "Folly," played triple forte on the Bombard Belgique

The European Union has treated us to a bumper crop of bureaucratic foolishness, but this one's a whopper. In a regulation to become effective in July, the Boys in Brussells have found a new item to place under restriction as a hazard to health and the environment: pipe organs.

It seems the member states of the EU passed a law restricting to a tiny percentage the amount of lead that can be contained in electrically powered devices. Pipe organs use lots of lead. Most of the pipes are almost entirely lead, in fact. The wind chests are kept full by air supplied by a pump, and those pumps are powered by electricity. So there you are.

How could such a crazy thing happen? Sheer sloppiness. The law was intended to deal with electronics like outdated cell phones or computer circuit boards. If these are dumped into landfills, the lead can leach into the environment and be a true hazard. But they didn't bother to specify the target of the law, so they wound up targetting by accident a technology whose hazards, if any, we would know about by now as we've only been using the things for two thousand years. (Literally. The earliest known organ prototype was invented by one of the great engineers of antiquity, Ktesibius of Alexandria, in the 3rd century BC. It was called a hydraulis, as the air flow was kept steady by a regulating mechanism using water pressure.)

Brussels was quick to reassure organ builders that their craft was in no danger. All any builder had to do was file for an exemption and he'd get it. But why should they HAVE to?? Why didn't the bureaucrats do their jobs, think it through, and specify the devices and situations they were concerned about with a phrase like "and all similar devices" thrown in to cover anything they missed? Why should the burden be on ordinary EU citizens to correct a mistake the "professionals" never should have made in the first place?

If there's anything worse than an unaccountable bureaucracy exerting control over every aspect of your life, it's an incompetant unaccountable bureaucracy exerting control over every aspect of your life.

(Note: The bombard is in fact a class of organ pipes, the noisiest ever constructed.)


Don said...

Far be it for me to defend bureaucrats, especially Belgian ones, but here I go. Lead is poisonous however it's used, and the thinking may have been to choose restrictiveness over any broadly worded exemptions, not only to reduce any unforeseen uses of the loophole but give the manufacturers a slight incentive to come up with something else.

Before the lead-free edict came down we never thought it would be possible to mass-produce reliable electronic connections without that time-honored tin-lead solder compound. But answers are being found, by golly. I'm no big fan of it, cause from where I sit it's a vast pain in the ass. On the other hand, an old friend of mine is employed full-time in the Pb-free solder effort. So there you have at least one job created.

What do the pipes use lead for anyway? Soldering the seams? Heck, that's an easy one to fix. Nothing like trying to prevent crystal growth in a ball grid array with a 1mm pitch.

Jean Lafitte said...

Well, metal pipe organs, both flues and reeds, are made from a variety of materials, including copper and zinc, but a lead/tin compound is one of the most common. Note that that's not just the solder on the seams, but the entire pipe. If you look inside an organ chest, most of the metal pipes will probably have the metallic gray color of lead/tin. The precise formula has been developed over centuries of trial and error, so any assumption that builders could easily find a replacement if they just had some incentive is pretty weak.

Your point about lead being poisonous "however it is used" can only really apply to lead that gets into people's bodies or the environment, and how can that happen with organs? If dangerous lead particles were being blown into the air, they'd be demanding that all organ use be stopped. They aren't; this regulation applies only to new construction.

The doohickies you guys make can easily end up in landfills, so concern about lead in them is reasonable. But old organs don't get thrown into landfills. If old pipes can be reused in a new instrument, they are. It's a very common practice. If they can't, they at least are melted down so that their precious lead/tin compound can be cast into new pipes.

Remember crawling around the attics of St. Mark's when we were kids? Remember the stacks of pipes from the old organ that broke down so many years before? Even when they'd abandoned the idea of repairing it, and commissioned that new Flentrop for the back of the church, they never considered throwing away the pipes.

I still think those EU bureaucrats are idiots.

Don said...

You make good points. Indeed and dammit, I'm unable to refute any of them, which leads us to agree that the EU bureaucrats are idiots.

I do indeed remember the old organ pipe racks hidden away, and that some of the smaller pipes "disappeared". I wish I had one but I don't.

I say, a work friend of mine has a pipe organ built into his house. Takes up two rooms plus the compressor out in the garage, and those volume-control flappy things aim out into the living room. You'd get a kick out of it. Maybe we could arrange a visit when you and A are out here this summer.