Sleek Smartphone Veneer hides Toxic Chemical Soup

by Jeff Wiener on October 4, 2012

Advanced technology just feels clean; no exhaust pipe out the back of your tablet or stack out the top of your smartphone blowing chemicals into the atmosphere, just a sleek and sophisticated piece of plastic, metal, and polished glass. But it might surprise you to hear that under that pristine aesthetically pleasing surface hides a veritable toxic soup of chemicals that are far messier and far more damaging to the environment than many of the more visible fossil fuel pollutants.

While stories of workers involved in the production of smartphones being poisoned by certain chemicals used in the manufacturing process are sometimes briefly splashed across the headlines, what’s less known is what actually goes into our smartphones, chemicals that if not disposed of properly could do real damage to the environment around us and the air we all breathe for generations to come.

Now here’s the really depressing part, according to a joint study from tech site iFixit and HealthyStuff.org, which conducted chemical analysis tests on 36 mobile phones, several where found packed with toxic substances, made worse by the findings that of the 130 million mobile phones Americans discard each year, only a paltry 8 percent are recycled properly, leaving generations to come the responsibility to clean up our toxic sludge.

While I would wager a guess that we all likely would have known that some toxic chemicals are used in the production of our modern technology, its often unknown exactly what makes up the interior of our favourite smartphones. As expected, manufactures are often tight-lipped about the mad scientist recipes employed in smartphone production, given that the information is likely both publicly embarrassing and competitively sensitive.

In order to find out exactly what toxic components make up our smartphones, iFixit sent 36 mobile phones to Healthystuff.org for analysis, and the findings were much of what I would have expected. As the iFixit website explains,

“By overall ranking, six of the 36 phones are of “low concern” (including the iPhone 5, the Motorola Citrus, and the Samsung Captivate). Twenty-four of the phones are of “medium concern” (including the Samsung Eternity, the Motorola Droid X, and the BlackBerry Curve 8530). The remaining six phones are of “high concern” (including the Nokia N95 and iPhone 2G).”

Simply put, while smartphones are dangerous environmental offenders, it does seem that companies are taking Mother Earth into consideration with successive iterations of their mobile devices, clearly evidenced by the fact that Apple’s iPhone 4S is second on the list as a ‘low concern,’ while the companies earlier iPhone 2G ranks as the worst environmental offender of them all. It should be noted that the iPhone 4S actually ranks better than several phones touted as environmentally friendly options, something for all those Apple detractors to chew on I suppose.

So what’s my point? It’s easy to forget about your smartphone after you toss it in the garbage or exchange it for something new and shiny, with the assumption that its whisked off to some disposal plant where its completely disassembled and recycled into future smartphones or made lovingly into birds nests or some such thing. But the fact of the matter is that even though environmentally speaking things are getting better, they’re still not good enough, with each phone still packing a veritable toxic cornucopia of garbage.

Couple this with the news that many of the most dangerous chemicals are contained in smartphone parts that can’t be recycled, parts that are often shipped to third world countries for dangerously unsafe disposal, and its clear that health is at stake—“the health of Americans, the health of children burning electronics in Ghana, and the health of the people who inherit our landfills.”

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