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Apple iPhones get (a little) less toxic

This spring, Green America’s Bad Apple: End Smartphone Sweatshops campaign, in partnership with China Labor Watch (CLW), called on Apple to remove toxic chemicals including benzene and n-hexane from its supplier factories in China. Five months after the launch, with 23,000 petition signatures, Apple announced on August 14 that it would “prohibit the use of benzene and n-hexane” at 22 of its final-assembly supplier factories, 18 of which are in China.

What are Benzene and N-Hexane?

A known carcinogen, benzene can cause leukemia, a blood cancer, and leukopenia, a dangerously low white blood cell count. The chemical n-hexane is a neurotoxicant that can cause nerve damage and paralysis. The dangers of these vaporous chemicals are compounded after long exposure, as is almost universally the case for workers in the electronics sector who work on average 11 hours a day. Of course there are thousands of other chemicals used in electronics manufacturing, some of which lack adequate testing and many of which are not disclosed by Apple.

What does this commitment mean for workers?

Apple’s commitment, effective September 1, 2014, means that the estimated 500,000 workers who work in Apple’s final-assembly, or “first-tier,” suppliers can no longer work with or be exposed to benzene and n-hexane. These factories represent roughly 5% of Apple’s suppliers in China. Apple’s 331 other suppliers in China are second- or third-tier suppliers, who make and assemble the parts of Apple’s products, such as the plastic encasement of an iPhone or laptop, the buttons, or chargers. An estimated 1 million workers work deeper in Apple’s supply chain, where chemical monitoring and safety measures are believed to be less controlled than in first-tier facilities.

Who Pays the Price? The Human Cost of Electronics”, a 10-minute documentary, profiles several of the millions of migrant electronics workers in China.

How does this commitment affect the toxicity of cell phones?

Thanks to a 2007 Greenpeace campaign, Apple committed to reducing or banning a number of toxic substances in its iPhones, including brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and chlorinated plastic polyvinyl chloride (PVC)—which had been linked to thyroid problems, learning disabilities in children, and other health issues. Apple has also banned lead and mercury from its final products. However, these bans apply only to the final products and not to the manufacturing processes, which means workers still run the risk of being exposed to these chemicals.

In 2012, published a study that ranked 36 phones on their hazardous substances content. You can check how your phone scored here.

What’s next?

With production set to ramp up this fall with the release of the iPhone 6, Green America and CLW are now calling on Apple to extend the chemical ban to substances other than benzene and n-hexane, and to all of its supplier factories, including early-production facilities. We will also ramp up the pressure on Apple’s competitors.

If you’ve ever wondered if signing a petition can really make a difference, this campaign has shown that it can. In just 5 months, with the backing of thousands of Apple customers, we’ve been able to push one of the biggest companies in the world to change its ways and protect workers from hazardous chemicals.

You too can thank Apple for taking this step and help Green America keep up the pressure on Apple. Take action!

Green America is part of Safer Chemicals’ coalition to push Congress and retailers for more sane laws and policies on toxic chemicals.