Anyone feel like this after soldering?
June 20, 2019 8:28 AM   Subscribe

I occasionally have a need to solder. When I do, I wear a paint and odour mask, I have the window open, I hold my breath when actually making the joint and I try not to have my face over the action! I also solder very seldom and for no more than about an hour at a time.

However, soon after soldering, I get a big sense of lethargy, headache, brain fog, aching joints etc etc etc which lasts about 24 hours!

I'm baffled. The solder I use is this one: 2% copper, 60% tin, 38% lead.

I'm really confused. I've done lots of Googling but none of the conditions related to soldering seem to fit. Rosin allergy seems to be a thing but my airways are unaffected. I get no itch, no tickle, no asthmatic reaction (and I do have mild asthma).

Any ideas?!
posted by dance to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If you have a flux vapour sensitivity, you'll need an extraction fan to pull the air away from your workstation and either send it outside or through a carbon filter. If your workstation is near the window, put a big box fan on the windowsill, blowing out, and work next to it. I'm not sure if that mask is going to deal with the flux vapours, especially if they settle on your skin and affect you that way, so the best way to assure you are not exposed at all is to keep all of the fumes away from your face.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:36 AM on June 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

Found this Wikipedia page on Metal fume fever, which lists a lot of the symptoms you mention. It does say that it can be caused by soldering. Could it be from the metals that you're working on, rather than the solder itself?
posted by Gomez_in_the_South at 8:43 AM on June 20, 2019

Yikes. I've never heard of symptoms like this. But, a desktop fan right next to the work to remove the fumes isn't a bad idea for long-term health. You could make a tube out of flexible aluminum ducting fitted to the back that goes out a window or into a vent, if you want to simulate the fume extraction hoods used in labs that do lots of soldering.

My entirely naive guess is that the flux is more likely than the metals. But, there are both non-lead solders and a combination of non-rosin-core solders and alternative fluxes that you could try out as a test. The details will depend on exactly what you're soldering. If you're willing to give up a few days and slightly risk your health to experiment, heating up a tin/lead non-rosin-core solder and breathing in the fumes, and then maybe doing the same the next day with a rosin-core RoHS or silver solder, or even a soldering iron/torch heating up rosin flux, might help narrow down what you're sensitive to. Best of luck! This sounds awful.
posted by eotvos at 9:07 AM on June 20, 2019

FYI, you can get lead-free solder pretty easily these days, and I'd definitely recommend it.

On top of that, seanmpuckett's suggestion to use a box fan as an improvised fume hood is a good one, and it's what I'd do in your situation.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:29 AM on June 20, 2019

That sounds like my experiences back in my soldering days, but I usually only wound up feeling crappy if I spent an entire day soldering. I'd get a fume extractor (I had this model).
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 9:54 AM on June 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

Honestly, you should be using an extractor anyway just on general safety principles.
posted by pharm at 10:06 AM on June 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

This is not to discount the likelihood of fumes causing your problem, but something that might contribute...

How long do you typically hold your breath each time you hold it? And how many times per hour-long session? What is the tension like in your body during the breath-holding? Are you tensing up?

I think it's certain you have some fume problems, but these other physical behaviors might be exacerbating your symptoms.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 10:42 AM on June 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Are you soldering plumbing pipe or electronics?

Edit: window electronics.

It's very easy to get lead free RoHS compliant solder. Start there.
posted by edbles at 11:06 AM on June 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

I haven't run into anything to the degree of these symptoms, but I have found that if I don't wear an N95 mask while soldering I really notice it in the immediate term as far as sinus/throat irritation and potentially a kind of mild hangover of blechiness for a day or so. (As well as an immediate, visceral yech about the vaporized flux in my face in the moment.) With a mask I'm fine. I also wear safety goggles just for anti-spatter safety, but that may be helping keeping fumes from getting in my eyes as much as they might otherwise.

I'll solder for 30-60 minutes at a stretch when I'm doing it, working on stained glass where I need to apply flux fairly deliberately and move a lot of solder around. I'm using 60-40 solder very similar in composition to what you're using, no rosin/acid core. I've used mostly liquid flux brushed on, but I've also more recently tried some gel-based flux and subjectively I feel like I'm more able to apply just enough that way and to produce less overall vapor.

Nthing active ventilation as the biggest first thing you could try to improve this. Move some serious air away from you throughout and see if that has a significant impact.
posted by cortex at 11:10 AM on June 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

In addition to the above suggestions, get an eye test. I got severe headaches from soldering that I attributed to fumes for a long time. Masks, extractor fans, lead-free solder, nothing seemed to help. A magnifying glass fixed it. I'm slightly long sighted and focusing hard on small items, especially SMD components, was causing pain.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 11:21 AM on June 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

Start with one of these. Also use a lead-free solder.

Though fwiw I've never experienced this.
posted by olinerd at 12:10 PM on June 20, 2019

The mask you are using is not going to help with any of the nasties in soldering fumes. Get a fume extractor and/or better ventilation. Ditch the mask, and breathe normally. Holding your breath may be part of the problem.

Lead is a problem with cumulative, chronic exposure. There is no way you are inhaling or ingesting enough lead in an hour of soldering to cause acute symptoms. If you did (say, by eating a whole tube of SMD solder paste), the problem definitely would not go away in 24 hours.

Using lead-based solder is fine for hobbyist projects, so long as you use an extractor and wash your hands after. (It has a lower melting point than the RoHS stuff, and is much easier to work with, especially if you're just getting started and/or don't have the best tools.) Lead-free solder is important for large-scale commercial production because of environmental impact. You're never going to homebrew enough for it to matter.

You may get better results with a eutectic mix like Sn63/Pb37, but that's just in terms of joint quality, not health impact.

Also echoing comments upthread to make sure you can see OK. Check your lighting, get better eyewear and/or get a binocular scope.
posted by sourcequench at 1:13 PM on June 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

A mask can only work while you wear it. If the fumes are still in the room when you’re done and you take the mask off, they’ll affect you. So you need a fume extractor.

The primary fume in soldering is the flux, not the metals. In addition to the extractor, try using a fluxless solder and experiment with fluxes to find something you’re less sensitive to.

I agree with ramphorhynchus that it’s possible you’re getting a headache from trying to focus on your work, so a decent stand magnifier can help. A cheap one from a crafts or office supply works just as well as something from an electronics shop (I’m saying this as someone who’s experimented with several).

I’m also wondering whether holding your breath for long periods while you solder is also contributing to your headaches. Why bother with a breathing mask if you’re holding your breath? If you don’t trust your equipment, replace it.

Get a fume extractor. Try to breathe normally. Get a magnifier.
posted by ardgedee at 7:49 PM on June 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Frankly, if you're using a decent temp-controlled iron, you're not ingesting even insignificant amounts of lead unless you're eating the solder or licking your fingers without washing. It simply doesn't vaporise in any detectable amount at normal soldering temperatures - at everyday human-tolerable atmospheric pressures, lead doesn't even start to think about vaporising until over ~500℃ (yes, I know, that's considerably lower than its ~1750℃ boiling point). Typical soldering iron tip temperature is ~350℃ (say, 330℃-400℃).

Most commonly, people suffering generalised symptoms during/after soldering are, as mentioned above, either (a) sensitive/reacting to flux fumes, or (b) feeling the effects of other physical behaviors typically associated with soldering - holding your breath, clenching your jaw, stressing neck/shoulder muscles, leaning over the work at less than comfortable angles, squinting, etc, etc.

For (a), try different fluxes - some people are sensitive to pure rosin fluxes but not no-clean or halogenated fluxes, others are sensitive to activated rosin (i.e. RMA or RA) fluxes but not pure rosin or no-clean, some are sensitive to no-clean but fine with pure rosin, RMA, & RA, etc. Experiment a bit - in my experience the pure rosin fluxes are generally better-tolerated by most people, but most people buy (& many suppliers supply) RA or RMA thinking it's better. But some people just plain don't like the smell of any of it.

For (b), consider reorganising your workspace & using appropriate aids to ensure you're working comfortably. That means bench at the right height for you and your chair, plenty of elbow room, tools to hand (not e.g. at the back of the bench), job right in front of you, etc, etc. That may also mean using a magnifier, microscope, or glasses, even if you don't normally need any of those things to see the work clearly. But also be aware that they can exacerbate or cause those symptoms (e.g. I get a headache from using even the lightest of head-mounted magnifiers; conversely, I much prefer to use a traditional stereo microscope rather than Mantis-type display scope because I find myself clenching my neck and jaw & not moving my head as much when I'm not looking directly at the work).

Oh, and both sources of problems tend to multiply when using lead-free solder - because it both requires more concentration to get good results when hand-soldering, and produces more & harsher flux fumes due to the higher temperatures & more aggressive fluxes necessary.
posted by Pinback at 8:14 PM on June 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

I've felt 'fume flu' before. The most important factor for me has been ventilation.
posted by Standard Orange at 10:19 PM on June 20, 2019

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