updated 02:00 am EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Investigation showed no danger to Apple workers, but risks too great
Thanks to the work of activists in raising awareness of the potential risks of some chemicals used in the production process of its products, Apple has announced that it is now restricting suppliers from using n-hexane and benzene in the final assembly process, even though the company's own investigation showed there was no direct danger of contamination for Apple workers. Because of the potential effects, the chemicals (used mostly for cleaning) are no longer permitted.
Even if the risk of exposure was low, the chemicals have been seen to cause damage in other cases, reports AppleInsider. An incident in 2010 at a plant owned by a supplier company for Apple and others, Wintek, saw 62 workers hospitalized for months due to poisoning caused by n-hexane, with another 44 also treated for possible exposure.
The solvent is used to clean products, machinery and components, and is popular because it dries faster and cleaner than alcohol, but the chemical is a neurotoxin and can cause nerve damage. Benzene, a carcinogen, has been known to cause leukemia if one is exposed to sufficient levels of it.
Following a drive by China Labor Watch and others to pressure Apple to stop using the chemicals, the iPhone maker conducted a four-month study across its 500,000 workers in 22 mostly Foxconn-owned facilities. The study found that the chemicals were being used safely and responsibly, with no trace of either one in 18 of the factors and acceptable trace amounts within safety limits at the other four. Most of the factories are in China, but four of them are located in Brazil, Ireland and two facilities in the US, in Texas and California.
Despite this, the decision was made to eliminate the risk and remove them from the process, since safer alternatives exist. Apple is even requiring that replacement substances be tested for any amounts of benzene or n-hexane within them, even if the two chemicals are not listed as ingredients. Apple is allowing the two substances to be using during early production phases that generally occur in more automated environments, but is lowering the maximum amount of benzene and n-hexane that can be present or detected as an additional precaution.
"This is a good first step," said Green America Campaign Director Elizabeth O'Connell, representing one of the groups that had petitioned Apple to cease using the two substances. "I hope they will continue to remove the most dangerous chemicals to human health or find ways to reduce the exposure."
Apple Vice President of Environmental Initiatives, Lisa Jackson, told the Associated Press that the company was "doing everything we can think of to do to crack down on chemical exposures and to be responsive to concerns," adding that the iPhone maker thinks it is "really important that we show some leadership and really look toward the future by trying to use greener chemistries."
Both chemicals are widely used in the electronics industry and among tech makers, but as is frequently the case, only Apple is spotlighted on the issue because of its enormous influence on industry practices. Greenpeace Senior Information Technology Analyst Gary Cook hopes that the new rules will put pressure on other companies to do the same. "This shows Apple can use its market muscle and influence to identify cleaner practices," he said.
Referring to the lengthy list of other hazardous chemicals that are needed in modern electronics manufacture, Cook added that "It would be great to see that list get shorter, not just in terms of protecting worker safety but in terms of protecting air quality and water quality."