Greenpeace: The iPhone contains toxic chemicals

The environmental group found phthalates, chemicals considered harmful to reproductive development, in the casing surrounding the iPhone's earbud wires.

Published October 15, 2007 7:19PM (EDT)

The environmental group Greenpeace says that it has tested Apple's iPhone for a variety of hazardous chemicals, and the iPhone failed. Greenpeace, which has long criticized Apple for the alleged toxicity of its products and manufacturing practices, found that the iPhone contained, among other bad stuff, chemicals known as phthalates, which are thought to affect hormonal levels and disrupt sexual development in humans.

In response, another environmental group, California's Center for Environmental Health, has pledged to take legal action against Apple for violating California's Proposition 65, which requires companies to attach a warning label to products that may cause reproductive harm.

You can read Greenpeace's study of the iPhone -- "Missed Call: iPhone's Hazardous Chemicals" -- in PDF form.

The group says that it purchased an iPhone in June and then sent it to an independent lab in the U.K. for testing. Scientists analyzed Apple's phone using a process called X-Ray Fluorescence spectrometry.

It's worth noting, first, that the iPhone passed several aspects of the test. Greenpeace found no cadmium, mercury or toxic forms of chromium in the device, and lead was found at levels well below regulated limits. Consequently, the group says, the iPhone appears to conform to European Union environmental regulations, which are generally tougher than those in the United States.

But when it inspected the iPhone's headphones, Greenpeace found phthalates at relatively high concentrations -- 1.5 percent of the overall weight of the plastic casing surrounding the headphone wires. The most common phthalates were Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, or DEHP, and di-n-butyl phthalate, or DBP. DEHP was found at concentrations of 1.1 percent, and DBP was at 0.5 percent.

In Europe, phthalates are prohibited at concentrations over 0.1 percent in toys and childcare products. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger just signed a similar law onto the books in California.

Apple doesn't seem to be violating these laws -- the iPhone is not, of course, a toy. But as the Center for Environmental Health alleges, Apple could be running afoul of Prop. 65 for failing to warn customers of the phthalates.

The Greenpeace report does seem to suggest a warning to parents: Don't let your kids chew on your iPhone earbuds!

Greenpeace also found bromine on the iPhone's internal antenna, its headphone socket, and an internal circuit board. The levels seem to comply with EU laws on BFRs, brominated flame retardants, chemicals known to damage ecosystems when they enter the waste-water stream. But Greenpeace says that the presence of bromine suggests that Apple continues to use BFRs in its manufacturing processes.

In May, Apple CEO Steve Jobs posted a note on the company's Web site in which he outlined a range of steps the company is taking to make a "greener Apple." In it, among other environmental promises, he pledged to discontinue using BFRs by the end of 2008.

None of Greenpeace's findings appear to contradict Jobs' promises, and you certainly wouldn't be wrong in guessing that the group is focusing on Apple because its products make for more sensational marketing opportunities than do the wares of other firms (Exhibit A is the Greenpeace video above).

But according to Greenpeace, competitors to Apple -- including Nokia, Motorola and Sony Ericsson -- are further along in removing phthalates and BFRs from their products.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story I said that unlike other cell manufacturers, Apple had no iPhone take-back program. I was wrong (and so was Greenpeace). As (justifiably) apoplectic readers point out, Apple will recycle your iPod, iPhone and, indeed, any other phone made by any manufacturer for free. See here for more info.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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