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Greenpeace: Apple iPhone More Brown than Green

Charges highlight continued use of toxins in technology
iPhone



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."

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."

Greenpeace charged that Apple's use of BFRs and PVC in the iPhone "suggests that Apple is not making early progress toward its 2008 commitment to phase-out all uses of these materials, even in entirely new product lines."

Apple did not respond to requests for an interview for this story, but in a statement given to Macworld said the iPhone complies with the RoHS and reiterated its plans to eliminate the use of PVC and BFRs by the end of 2008.

The iPhone did get a clean bill of health from Greenpeace in several areas: no cadmium (a carcinogen) or mercury (a toxin known to cause nerve and organ damage) was detected, and lead and chromium (toxic if ingested or inhaled) were detected in a small proportion of samples and at relatively low concentrations. Additionally, there was no evidence for the presence of chromium VI (a carcinogen that can also cause permanent eye injury with continued exposure) in a range of other metal-plated components tested.

David Santillo, an environmental chemist and a senior scientist at Greenpeace Research Laboratories (based at the University of Exeter in England), says that Greenpeace purchased an iPhone when the product debuted. "We knew it would be popular but we had no idea [of] the number of sales it would reach," he says. "We were more interested in Apple's claim that it was reinventing the phone." Although Greenpeace authored its own report, the organization contracted the actual materials analysis out to a lab (Santillo declined to say which one). Greenpeace has commissioned environmental impact testing of Apple products in the past, including the MacBook.

Despite Apple's claims to be an environmental leader, Greenpeace has found that competitors such as Nokia and Motorola are going green faster. In fact, Greenpeace ranks Nokia as the top electronics provider, environmentally speaking, noting that it has already eliminated PVC from new models of mobile phones. Greenpeace's one issue with Nokia is its "poor reporting on the amounts of discarded mobiles that it recycles as a percentage of past sales." Motorola likewise states on its Web site that its handsets are PVC-free.

Toxins in PVC are found in much larger quantities in the pipes, window frames and siding that people use in their homes, but the iPhone is a more personal piece of equipment that is kept much closer to the user's body and has not generally been identified as a health hazard, says Timothy Gutowski, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition to alerting consumers to the iPhone's environmental shortfalls, the Greenpeace report should remind people of the "huge chemical and energy footprint" in all of the electronics they purchase and use, he adds.

Santillo warns that unless companies live up to promises to clean up their products, "we're never going to move forward."

Greenpeace charged that Apple's use of BFRs and PVC in the iPhone "suggests that Apple is not making early progress toward its 2008 commitment to phase-out all uses of these materials, even in entirely new product lines."

Apple did not respond to requests for an interview for this story, but in a statement given to Macworld said the iPhone complies with the RoHS and reiterated its plans to eliminate the use of PVC and BFRs by the end of 2008.

The iPhone did get a clean bill of health from Greenpeace in several areas: no cadmium (a carcinogen) or mercury (a toxin known to cause nerve and organ damage) was detected, and lead and chromium (toxic if ingested or inhaled) were detected in a small proportion of samples and at relatively low concentrations. Additionally, there was no evidence for the presence of chromium VI (a carcinogen that can also cause permanent eye injury with continued exposure) in a range of other metal-plated components tested.

David Santillo, an environmental chemist and a senior scientist at Greenpeace Research Laboratories (based at the University of Exeter in England), says that Greenpeace purchased an iPhone when the product debuted. "We knew it would be popular but we had no idea [of] the number of sales it would reach," he says. "We were more interested in Apple's claim that it was reinventing the phone." Although Greenpeace authored its own report, the organization contracted the actual materials analysis out to a lab (Santillo declined to say which one). Greenpeace has commissioned environmental impact testing of Apple products in the past, including the MacBook.

Despite Apple's claims to be an environmental leader, Greenpeace has found that competitors such as Nokia and Motorola are going green faster. In fact, Greenpeace ranks Nokia as the top electronics provider, environmentally speaking, noting that it has already eliminated PVC from new models of mobile phones. Greenpeace's one issue with Nokia is its "poor reporting on the amounts of discarded mobiles that it recycles as a percentage of past sales." Motorola likewise states on its Web site that its handsets are PVC-free.

Toxins in PVC are found in much larger quantities in the pipes, window frames and siding that people use in their homes, but the iPhone is a more personal piece of equipment that is kept much closer to the user's body and has not generally been identified as a health hazard, says Timothy Gutowski, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition to alerting consumers to the iPhone's environmental shortfalls, the Greenpeace report should remind people of the "huge chemical and energy footprint" in all of the electronics they purchase and use, he adds.

Santillo warns that unless companies live up to promises to clean up their products, "we're never going to move forward."

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