SLICK, BUT SAFE? Greenpeace's analysis of Apple's iPhone gave the thumbs up in some areas but came down on the company for the presence of brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Image: Courtesy of Apple
Greenpeace this week ripped into Apple for failing to make "early progress" with the iPhone toward the company's stated goals for ecofriendliness. The report touched off a debate over whether the hugely popular mobile device is safe for its users and for the environment (after the iPhone is tossed into the recycling bin). Apple responded by reiterating its intent to give itself a year to clean up its act. End of debate? Unlikely. IPhone sales continue to be robust, but the charges indicate growing concern with toxins in technology.
As technology devices proliferate, it is increasingly important to monitor how they will impact the health of users as well as the environment after they are discarded. "While there is a great deal of discussion of the potentially hazardous components of electronics products, monitoring is rare in the U.S.," says Valerie Thomas, an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Industrial and Systems Engineering. "As the Greenpeace report demonstrates, testing is not difficult or expensive."
In May, Apple announced that all of its new products would be free from brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a chlorinated plastic, by the end of 2008. Although BFRs reduce the risk of electrical fires and PVC makes plastic more pliable, the former produces brominated dioxins and furans that can irritate the skin and respiratory system when heated at high temperatures and the latter often contains toxic phthalate plasticizers, suspected to be a carcinogen.
Apple's pledge apparently did not apply to products already in the pipeline: The recent Greenpeace study, Missed Call: iPhone's Hazardous Chemicals, points out that half of the iPhone components analyzed tested positive for bromine—whose vapors are toxic if inhaled—even though the device debuted a month after Apple's "A Greener Apple'' proclamation. Greenpeace reports that in three cases bromine was present in more than one percent of the total surface chemical composition of the material tested, prompting the environmental organization to conclude that there was "continued widespread use of either additive or reactive brominated flame retardants."
Although the Greenpeace iPhone study received a lot of media attention, it was overshadowed by announcements from Apple this week concerning the iPhone's future. Among them: plans to release a software development kit in February so that programmers can write new software to run on the mobile device, a tactic likely to increase sales. Not that there are not a lot of iPhones already in use: since their U.S. introduction 74 days ago on June 29, Apple has sold one million units.
Apple is also set to introduce the iPhone to the European market next month. In fact, the company earlier this week announced that France Telecom's wireless unit, Orange, will be its exclusive seller of the iPhone in France and that the European version of the device will work on any network. BFRs come in several varieties, and none of those found by Greenpeace in the iPhone violated the European Union's Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) in electrical and electronic equipment. But the study says that "all forms of BFR (even if chemically bound into polymers) can act as a significant source of toxic and persistent brominated pollutants once the iPhone handset enters the waste stream."