Public scrutiny has been directed at tech companies like Apple and Samsung, due to the use of chemicals such as benzene and n-hexane in electronics factories overseas. For several years, factory workers have reported harmful health effects after being exposed to these two chemicals. In 2011, BBC News reported that workers in Taiwan suffered long-term fatigue and limb swelling after working with n-hexane. And the second chemical, benzene, has been highlighted as the possible cause behind leukemia cases amongst Samsung factory workers in Korea. Apple’s ban on these two chemicals may have a ripple effect, as the global community demands increased accountability for factory worker safety.
Scope of the Chemical Ban
This isn’t the first time that Apple has addressed factory worker safety regarding toxic materials. The company routinely audits their overseas factories to ensure that work conditions meet certain internal and legal standards, including Apple’s Regulated Substances Specification. Apple’s official Environmental Safety website describe how their electronics do not contain PVC, arsenic, BFR, and phthalate, elements that could harm both workers and end users. Some of these toxic substances have been banned by Apple as far back as 1995. The ban on the chemicals n-hexane and benzene was announced on August 13, 2014. According to the Associated Press, Apple factories in the U.S., Brazil, Ireland, and China will cease to use these two chemicals during the final assembly of iPads, iPhones, and Mac Computers.
What The Chemicals Are Used For
Electronics suppliers often use n-hexane as a touchscreen cleaner. This chemical has been extremely popular on the assembly line, because it dries quickly. However, companies that are making efforts to replace this chemical are switching to alcohol-based solvents to wipe down electronic screens and components. Benzene is another solvent, derived from crude oil and gasoline. It is also used to clean electronics and to coat gadget elements.
Serious Health Consequences
Both of these solvents have been flagged by a number of U.S. and international healthcare and worker safety organizations as hazards. According to the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, n-hexane can enter the body through the skin, through contaminated water, or through air vapors. Research shows that n-hexane exposure can pose serious health risks, such as nerve damage and an increase in cancer risk. Benzene is also notorious for its adverse health effects. The World Health Organization (WHO) explains that people can become exposed to toxic levels of benzene by breathing contaminated air or by drinking contaminated water. The short-term consequences include narcosis, and long-term exposure has been linked to lower red-blood cell production and leukemia.
The use of hazardous chemicals on electronics assembly lines has resulted in intense human rights and public health controversies, debates, and protests. Nonprofits such as Green America were able to collect over 23,000 signatures asking Apple to remove these hazardous chemicals from their facilities. As Apple takes action to ban the use of n-hexane and benzene in electronics factories, it will be interesting to see whether other major tech retailers will follow suit.