Cancer and nerve damage: is this the human cost of an iPhone?
Customers should search their conscience and consider the fate of an estimated million workers in supplier factories before buying Apple products, says the non-profit organisation Green America.
Exposure to the dangerous toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing process of parts that go on to make up Apple products can lead to cancer, nerve damage and reproductive health issues, says the group, warning that staff are not always given adequate training in their use or access to the correct protective equipment.
Such chemicals include n-hexane, used to clean screens because it evaporates more quickly than other solvents, which can cause nerve damage and, in severe cases, paralysis. Another, carcinogenic benzene, is used to coat certain electronic components.
None of these current practices are against Chinese law in local health and safety procedures. But Green America is calling for Apple to demand the use of alternative, safer chemicals in production across the whole supply chain. Doing so would raise costs by less than one US dollar per device, it says.
Elizabeth O’Connell, campaigns director at Green America, said: “Apple is a highly popular brand, one that consumers trust and expect to act responsibly. Apple is also highly profitable so it can easily afford to do right by its workers and make the necessary changes to appeal to its socially-conscious consumers.”
Kevin Slaten, program coordinator of China Labor Watch, said: “Manufacturers adapt to the ever-tightening price and time demands of consumer electronics brand companies by lowering costs through longer hours, faster work, less worker safety training, and the use of harmful chemicals.
“In the end, the price for profit maximization is paid for by Apple’s workers. While each iPhone boasts it was ‘designed by Apple in California,’ the true story is that it was made in China by a worker Apple is quick to ignore.”
An Apple spokesperson said that in 2013 the company trained over 100 supplier staff on chemical hazards management, and it completed chemical hazards assessments and industrial hygiene monitoring at nearly 20 facilities.
They said: "Over the past decade, Apple has led the industry in removing toxics like lead and mercury, brominated flame retardants and PVC from our products, which is good for workers as well as consumers.
"When it comes to handling chemicals and toxic substances, we require that our suppliers around the world meet or exceed respected U.S. safety standards such as OSHA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists.
"Last year, we conducted nearly 200 factory inspections which focused on hazardous chemicals, to make sure those facilities meet our strict standards. We also provide suppliers with training in hazardous chemical management, industrial hygiene and personal protection equipment as part of the Apple Supplier EHS Academy in Suzhou, China."
Apple also recently published its annual Supplier Responsibility Report, showing that all 59 active tantalum smelters in its supply chain were validated as conflict-free by third-party auditors.
Tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold are regularly used in electronics, including Apple products, and some sources are found within the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and adjoining countries. Extraction of these minerals may finance or benefit armed groups that are associated with human rights violations
Computer chip maker Intel also pledged at the trade show CES this year to avoid sourcing minerals for its factories from areas of the world plagued by human rights abuses.
Chief executive Brian Krzanich said at the time: "The minerals are important, our industry relies on them, but they're not as important as the people mining them.
"As you begin to put these factories around the world, you begin to think about the impact on the supply chain and the potential issues you could be causing.”
The company investigated the smelters which provide tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold used in microprocessor silicon to check that the company was not inadvertently funding conflict in the DRC. Some refused to be audited and were dropped by Intel as suppliers.