Poison Apple? Greenpeace Slams Apple for 'Toxic' iPhone
Greenpeace slammed Apple in a report released Monday, claiming the iPhone contains many toxic materials that the company promised to cut down on. Based on the study, another environmental group, the CEH, has threatened to sue Apple for violating California law. Others question whether it's logical to single out one device when so many consumer products contain toxic materials.
Oct 16, 2007 12:03 PM PT
In a scathing report released Monday, environmental activism group Greenpeace said that, despite Apple's recent claims that it would assume a greener profile, the company's iPhone fell from a toxic tree.
The handset, according to the group, contains several toxic substances including brominated flame retardants as well as phthalates plasticisers and chloride, both substances characteristic of PVC (polyvinyl chloride).
Greenpeace pointed to Apple's mobile handset competitors as examples of companies doing the right thing. Nokia handsets are 100 percent PVC free, it said; meanwhile, Motorola and Sony Ericsson already have products on the market that are free of brominated flame retardants.
"Steve Jobs has missed the call on making the iPhone his first step towards greening Apple's products," said Zeina Alhajj, Greenpeace International toxics campaigner. "It seems that Apple is far from leading the way for a green electronics industry, as competitors like Nokia already sell mobile phones free of PVC."
Legal Gears Turn
Just hours after the report was released, the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) announced that has taken the first steps to begin legal action against Apple. The organization based its decision on the Greenpeace findings, which indicate that the levels of phthalates in the iPhone violate a California law, Proposition 65.
"There is no reason to have these potentially hazardous chemicals in iPhones," said Michael Green, executive director of CEH. "We expect Apple to reformulate their products to make them safer from cradle to grave so they don't pose a threat to consumers, workers or the environment."
Apple did not respond to requests for comment.
Following the release of the iPhone on June 29, Greenpeace purchased the device and sent it to the group's research facilities at the University of Exeter in England where the phone was disassembled. A selection of 18 internal and external materials and parts where then forwarded to an independent laboratory for analysis focusing on substances regulated in the EU, such as lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium (VI) and certain brominated flame retardants. Other tests were conducted checking for hazardous substances and materials including PVC and toxic phthalate plasticisers, compounds common to PVC.
While researchers found no evidence of cadmium or mercury, they did detect a low concentration of lead and chromium in a small proportion of the samples. There was no trace of the most toxic and regulated form of chromium, Chromium VI, in the metal components tested, Greenpeace said.
However, 50 percent of the components analyzed tested positive for bromine -- in three instances at over 1 percent of the total surface chemical composition of the material -- researchers reported. That, according to Greenpeace, points to continued widespread use of either additive or reactive brominated flame retardants (BFRs). The lab did not detect any BFRs banned by the EU in the flexible circuit board of the phone's antenna, which tested highest in bromine content at 10 percent by weight. All forms of BFRs, even those chemically bound into polymers, the group said, "can act as a significant source of toxic and persistent brominated pollutants once the iPhone headset enters the waste stream."
In addition, the analysis detected a high level of chlorine in the plastic coating of the headphone cables, along with phthalates plasticisers that comprise 1.5 percent of the plastic coating. While not banned in general, the two phthalates are known to interfere with hormones and disrupt sexual development in mammals and are prohibited from use in all toys in Europe and California.
"Two of the phthalates plasticers found at high levels in the headphone cable are classified in Europe as 'toxic to reproduction, category 2' because of their long-recognized ability to interfere with sexual development in mammals," said David Santillo, senior scientist at the Greenpeace Research Laboratories.
"While they are not prohibited in mobile phones, these phthalates are banned from use in all toys or childcare articles sold in Europe. Apple should eliminate the use of these chemicals from its product range," he added.
In May, Apple CEO Steve Jobs posted a letter on the company's Web site detailing what the company had done, was doing and would do to make Apple a greener manufacturer. Included in its green initiative was a push to eliminate the use of toxic substances in its products and to improve its practices for recycling old products.
The letter came after Greenpeace released its Green Ranking Guide in April. The group ranked Apple dead last in its list of green companies, a report begun in 2006. The environmental organization highlighted Apple's absolute lack of progress following the release of the initial Guide and asked Apple lovers to join with the organization to demand a green Apple.
Jobs said Apple had completely eliminated cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitors from its product line in mid-2006, while other hardware makers continue to sell them. Apple would also discontinue the use of mercury in its liquid crystal displays and transition from fluorescent lamps to light-emitting diodes (LED) to illuminate the displays, he said. Macs with those displays are scheduled to debut this year, according to Jobs. In addition, Jobs said the company would completely eliminate the use of arsenic in its displays by the end of 2008.
As for PVC and BFRs, Jobs said Apple began phasing out PVC in 1995 and began restricting BFRs back in 2001.
"Today we've successfully eliminated the largest applications of PVC and BFRs in our products, and we're closer to eliminating these chemicals altogether," Jobs wrote. "For example, more than three million iPods have already shipped with BFR-free laminate on their logic boards. Apple plans to completely eliminate the use of PVC and BFRs in its products by the end of 2008."
Not in My State
California's Proposition 65 was passed by a voter initiative and has been on the books since 1986. The law requires manufacturers to include a warning label on products that can expose consumers to chemicals that are reproductive toxins or carcinogens.
California established list of toxic chemicals that require this warning, and the phthalates that were found on the headset cable of the iPhone are chemicals listed under Proposition 65, Caroline Cox, research director at CEH, told MacNewsWorld.
Only one of the four phthalates found during Greenpeace's testing, Cox pointed out, is of particular concern for the CEH -- dibutyl phthalate.
"It makes us really concerned about it," she said.
Phthalates disrupt the normal function of hormones, the chemical messengers that control all of the body's functions, according to Cox. Dibutyl phthalate, in particular, has been found in the blood stream of about 75 percent of people in the U.S. and is particularly high in women of childbearing age.
Recent studies on mothers with high levels of the chemical found a disproportionately high percentage of sexual development abnormalities among their male offspring.
"So what that is saying is that the burden of dibutyl phthalate we're already carrying around is causing problems for our sons," Cox said. "We want to reduce our exposure to this chemical. We don't need this in iPhone cables, and the point is to reduce our exposure to a chemical that has this kind of effects on the next generation."
The CEH sent Apple a letter notifying the company that it needs to clean up its act within 60 days or be the subject of a lawsuit in California.
"We believe they should be complying with the law and warning consumers," Cox explained. "But what we hope is that instead of just warning consumers they will actually remove the toxic chemicals from the product."
Other devices, including older versions of the iPod, could also contain banned substance, Cox said. However, at this time the CEH, which has just begun its investigation and will conduct its own analysis of Apple products, cannot confirm additional violations. The organization is also concerned about the presence of BFRs in the iPhone but said it has not yet been included under Proposition 65 and so are not the subject of the prospective suit.
"We have not done any additional analysis, but we are definitely investigating it," Cox stated.
The Greenpeace study, however, may not portray the risks of the iPhone in a realistic way. The report trains the public to misconstrue risks in a way which could lead society to chase all kinds of red herrings, Eric Williams told MacNewsWorld. Williams is a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University.
"It's like a 'Rambo' movie -- 'There are bad guys, and, if we get rid of them, we'll be safe,'" he explained. "The more complicated truth is that there are a lot of toxic substances floating around out there that we get exposed to. People studying actual indoor exposures are a lot more concerned about formaldehydes from cleaning products than the mercury inside of a computer."
Even peanut butter, for example, has a fairly potent cancer agent, aflatoxin, he pointed out. Almost everything has something in it that would be toxic to us at some dosage.
"The logic that 'A is toxic' and 'B contains A,' thus 'B is toxic' doesn't work," Williams stated.
The real risk, he said, involves dosage and exposure, which is a much more complicated formula. The iPhone does not violate any existing environmental standards in the world -- even the quite strict regulations in the EU -- or pledges made by the company, he said.
"I don't know why Greenpeace has chosen to pick on this particular product," he stated.
Williams acknowledged that both phthalates and BFRs can be endocrine disrupters and cause various reproductive problems in sufficient dosage.
"But are the dosages people get in practice enough to worry about? I don't have a complete answer; in fact, no one does. But both of these compounds are used in all kinds of household products from upholstery to casings on all kinds of electronics to food wrapping," he continued.
"It's not clear at all why we should get worked up in particular about a relatively small amount in an iPhone," he added. "There's hundreds to thousands times more lead in a television tube than an iPhone."
Consumers should be concerned first with the things that seem to be causing obvious problems, according to Williams.
"My colleague's works on indoor air pollution suggest that aldehydes from cleaning products are probably a far greater problem," he concluded. "BFRs may indeed be a problem, but I'd start with examining the BFR content in upholstery and other electronics before singling out the iPhone."