Toxins found in iPhones: How will Apple react?

Apple has come under fire before for the use of toxic chemicals in its iPhone.

The tech giant has phased some harmful toxins out of its manufacturing process in the past few years.

But some consumers and environmental groups still aren’t satisfied.

Two activist groups have recently singled out Apple for the use of harmful chemicals in Chinese iPhone manufacturing plants.

According to China Labor Watch and Green America, Chinese factory workers are routinely exposed to the solvents:

  • n-hexane, which is used to clean electronic displays, and
  • benzene, which is another cleaning and coating agent for electronics.

Exposure to the solvents has led to reports of worker poisonings.

Benzene is a carcinogen that can cause reproductive abnormalities and leukemia, and n-hexane has been known to cause nerve damage and, in some cases, paralysis.

Thing is, n-hexane evaporates nearly three times faster than other common cleaning solvents.

That means factory workers can wash and clean more iPhone screens.

An Apple spokesperson recently said that all of its suppliers are required to meet OSHA safety standards for handling of hazardous chemicals, which are:

  • 500 parts per million (ppm) for n-hexane, and
  • 1 ppm for benzene.

However, Chinese safety and health laws don’t require the same strict standards.

Green America says the use of safer chemical alternatives in the iPhone production process would raise Apple’s costs by less than $1 per device.

Apple isn’t in any legal or regulatory trouble because of the reports (yet).

But Green America’s “Bad Apple” campaign has garnered lots of media attention, which can’t be good for the tech giant’s brand image.

Risks for consumers and environment, too

Apple has been in the news before regarding the use of toxic chemicals.

Back in 2007, Green America analyzed the newly-launched iPhone for chemicals and discovered (PDF) the presence of:

  • brominated flame retardants (BFRs), which are linked to thyroid problems in adults and learning disabilities in children, and
  • chlorinated plastic polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which has also been linked to severe human health problems.

The health risks of the smartphone chemicals are troubling, of course.

But the risks to the environment are also on the radar of activist groups and some consumers.

Smartphones that aren’t recycled properly and sent to incinerators or landfills can release toxins into the air or into groundwater.

And it’s a fact that only 8% of the 130 million cell phones discarded by Americans every year are recycled, according to EPA.

Apple has made some progress on removing toxic chemicals from its phones in the last several years.

Since 2007, Apple has removed BFRs and PVC from its smartphones, and its phone batteries are free of lead, cadmium and mercury.

But while the manufacturer has taken some strides, a fair amount of toxins still remain.

And, of course, Apple isn’t the only electronics manufacturer using toxic chemicals.

A 2012 report by analyzed 36 different smartphones on the market and found that all of the phones contained bromine, chloride, lead, mercury and cadmium above levels of concern.

The top five “greenest” phones, according to the report, were the:

  1. Motorola Citrus
  2. iPhone 4S
  3. LG Remarq
  4. Samsung Captivate, and
  5. iPhone 5.

The bottom five phones included the:

  1. iPhone 2G
  2. Palm m125
  3. Motorola MOTO W233 Renew
  4. Nokia N95, and
  5. Blackberry Storm 9530.

Using safer chemical alternatives

It’s inevitable that the manufacturing process is going to involve chemicals.

But there are commercially-available and safer alternatives to some of the more dangerous and toxic chemicals out there.

Identifying and using safer chemical alternatives helps to:

  • lessen a company’s regulatory and safety burden, and can also
  • help promote a firm’s “green” image.

EPA recommends that manufacturers do a Chemical Alternative Assessment (CAA) to find some suitable replacements for chemicals used in the manufacturing process.

And the environmental agency provides plenty of resources for companies to do so, including a safer chemical ingredients database.

As for worker safety, OSHA also provides some helpful resources.

Choosing safer chemical alternatives is a time-consuming task – but it can pay off in spades.

Here are a few tips:

  • Form a team. Put together a committee that’ll research some alternatives.
  • Assess the chemicals you use. Figure out the purpose of each chemical, its hazards, and whether it’s truly necessary for making your product.
  • Research safer chemicals. Weigh the pros and cons of similar chemicals, including their costs, potential hazards, environmental impact and performance.
  • Do a test run. By testing a chemical’s use on a small scale, you’ll get a much better idea of how effective it can be.
  • Make the substitution. Over time, you can evaluate how the alternative is working out.

What do you think of Apple’s troubles with toxic chemical use in its manufacturing process? Is the company (and other electronics manufacturers) doing enough to curb the use of toxins in their popular products? How have you evaluated the use of chemicals in your operations?

Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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  1. So “Toxins found in iPhones” is really about n-hexane and benzene in the manufacturing process, not what is in the phone. “A 2012 report by analyzed 36 different smartphones on the market and found that all of the phones contained bromine, chloride, lead, mercury and cadmium above levels of concern.” Did you read the report? Not one of the elements tested were found in 100% of the samples. Even the EU RoHS limits have exemptions because technology has not found suitable alternatives yet. This article is nothing but hype.

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