At its latest Apr. 16 meeting in Shanghai, the International Standards Organization (ISO) adopted with very few changes the method devised by the Italian Certottica institute to measure the quantity of nickel released by eyewear frames. ISO had been asked to update the ISO 12870 technical norms for eyewear frames, partly in application of the European Union's 94/27 nickel directive, which forbids the use of materials which release more than half a millionth of a gram of nickel per square centimeter a week when in prolonged contact with the skin.

ISO's document has yet to be approved by the product certification bodies of all the countries. The European CEN committee, which has already sent 3 technicians to Italy to verify the new method, will have to approve it as well for the European Union. The same goes for the individual member governments. Under the European nickel directive, the test will be necessary to obtain the CE certification brand.

ISO concluded that the nickel testing procedure that had been prescribed by the EU uses a powerful abrasive (corundum) that could actually destroy the frames. After lengthy discussions, the international organization formally approved the Italian test procedure, with a few minor modifications and additions. The US representatives at the meeting backed the Italian position, whereas the German ISO representative, Heiner Tente, claimed that the Italian tumbling test method was not strict enough, partly because it is applied only to the temple pieces. The French institute responsible for certification has already bought from Certottica the alternative test equipment, which is now available to all countries with the ISO copyright, and the blueprint for the machinery has been sent free of charge to the Japanese certification institute. Austria and certain Nordic countries such as Sweden and Denmark, defended the tests defined by the European Union.

At the Shanghai meeting, members of the US delegation criticized the European directive, considering that it concerns a small number of individuals who are subject to skin allergies. In case of an allergic reaction, they indicated, the manufacturer may simply commit itself to replace the product with another one that doesn't contain any allergic substances, and this would solve any potential problems.

The member governments are free to intepret the EU's nickel directive as they wish in their own national legislation, as the directive doesn't specifically mention eyewear frames among the items that come in contact with the skin. European eye frame manufacturers have set up a committee (EUROM-1), led by Paolo Cannicci, chairman of of Italy's ANFAO trade association, and by Georges Cottet of Indo, to liaise with the European Commission in Brussels on this issue. As much of the eyewear produced in Europe is for export outside the EU, Cannicci argues that a decision must be taken on a European level to include or exclude eyewear from the directive and from the related certification tests. French industry officials are in favor of setting up a European group of experts to arbitrate among the interpetations given to the directive by the various national governments.

In Germany, eyewear should be excluded from the list of items covered by the EU directive, based on an argument that corrective eyeglasses must be considered as medical devices, and not as fashion accessories such as jewels and watches, but that would not apply to sunglasses. The Italian Ministry of Health has already come out in favor of excluding eyewear frames from the directive, and the French government plans to do the same. Instead, the Austrian, Danish and Swedish governments have indicated that eyewear will be covered by the directive in their own countries.

Anyway, many European producers have already switcvhed over to the production of nickel-free eyewear frames, in many cases using this as a sales argument, in spite of heavy investments on new moulds and equipment. Nickel-silver and copper-nickel-zinc alloys, the metals most frequently used in eyewear frames, are being replaced with lightweight materials that contain no harmful substances, such as titanium, but they are much more expensive. Other relatively expensive solutions are special coatings and a new nickel-free steel alloy.

There is apparently some industry support for a more cost-effective method proposed by an Italian chemist, Mauro Gajo of Elsy Research, who has suggested coating the traditional metals with a 10-micron electrochemical layer of copper and white bronze, a special copper/tin/zinc alloy. Certottica regards Gajo's recommendations as perfectly feasible, both technically and economically, as production costs would be minimally higher. Storage of the raw materials could prove a problem, however, and the Italian institute has some doubts as to the resistance of the coating in the long term and the danger of corrosion when the frame is in contact with perspiration, due to its high acidity.

The white bronze technique has aroused interest in Europe, and even more so among Chinese manufacturers, who fear that their exports will be refused entry into Europe because of the new anti-nickel ruling. Galvalux, the Italian firm that does the finishing for the majority of the country's optical industry, is currently using the new white bronze technique alongside with the traditional nickel-silver alloy. In Cadore, the heart of Italy's eyewear industry, only 3 or 4 small firms are currently producing exclusively nickel-free metal frames, although another 100 or so manufacturers are getting ready to do so. The larger manufacturers, such as Luxottica, are still using the traditional methods, as the white bronze technique is more complex to use and costlier to implement for the larger firms. Luxottica took part in the first research project to find a nickel-free alternative, but Solstare, in Austria, is already using white bronze.