Apple Bans Two Hazardous Chemicals From Its Chinese Factories

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Apple bans two potentially hazardous chemicals from the final assembly process, but campaigners say the iPhone maker must do more

Apple has banned two harmful chemicals from its Chinese suppliers’ factories after concerns about the health of workers involved with the assembly of the iPhone and iPad.

The factories in question will stop using benzene and n-hexane during most of the production process, but at least one campaigner feels that the Cupertino, California-based company has not gone far enough.

Toxin Ban

Apple said that a four-month investigation at 22 factories found no evidence that benzene and n-hexane had endangered the roughly 500,000 people who work at the plants. No traces of the chemicals were detected at 18 of the factories and the amounts found at the other four factories fell within acceptable safety levels, the company reportedly said.

Despite this, Apple has decided to order its suppliers to stop using benzene and n-hexane during the final assembly of iPhones, iPads, iPods, Macs and other accessories. It is also asking factories to test all substances to ensure that they don’t contain benzene or n-hexane.

Apple health chemical fear © Shots Studio ShutterstockBenzene is known to be a carcinogen, with high doses increasing the risk of cancer and other illnesses. The second chemical, n-hexane, has been linked to nerve damage. Both are used in a number of industrial applications (benzene is also used in gasoline, cigarettes, paints and glue). In this context however, both chemicals are found in the solvents used to clean machinery and electronics.

In 2011, Apple’s supplier responsibility report revealed that 137 Chinese workers had been injured by n-hexane used in cleaning iPhone screens. The chemical reportedly left some workers with nerve damage.

“This is doing everything we can think of to do to crack down on chemical exposures and to be responsive to concerns,” Lisa Jackson, Apple’s VP of environmental initiatives, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We think it’s really important that we show some leadership and really look toward the future by trying to use greener chemistries.”

Limited Use?

Whilst the Apple ban on the two harmful chemicals is laudable, campaigners feel it is a limited ban, because they are only removed from the “final assembly” process.

Apple is still allowing use of the two chemicals during the early production phases of its products. These early production phases often takes place at other third-party factories. That said, Apple is lowering the maximum amount of benzene and n-hexane that can present in the materials used during those earlier phases of production.

The non-profit group Green America said it was “pleased” with Apple’s decision to protect workers, but it urged the company to go further to ensure the safety of all the workers in its supply chain. The group said that beyond benzene and n-hexane, there are thousands of chemicals used in the manufacturing of electronics – some of which are largely untested.

“Apple first needs to disclose all of the chemicals used in the manufacturing processes of its products, not just those with restrictions,” said the group. “Additionally, while Green America applauds Apple for investigating all its final assembly plants in China, the non-profit is urging Apple to look deeper into its supply chain, to the second and third tier suppliers, where chemical usage and safety procedures are less controlled.”

Green America pointed out that Apple has 349 supplier facilities in China with an estimated 1.5 million workers. Apple has investigated just 22 of these facilities (6.3 percent) which employ a third of the workers who manufacture Apple’s products. The group said it will continue to call for Apple to identify and disclose all chemicals used in all supplier factories.

Apple has had a mixed past regarding environmental concerns. In 2012 for example, Apple withdrew its products from the EPEAT register, which labels electronic equipment according to its environmental impact. Later, it once again added the Macbook to the register.

Greenpeace has criticised the iPad maker and other tech firms in the past for heavily relying on “dirty utilities” to power their cloud facilities, as well as for the use of toxic substances in their manufacturing processes. But as far back as 2009, Apple has been seeking to improve its green credentials.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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