Two activist groups are seeking to pressure Apple into discontinuing the use of chemicals, including benzene and n-hexane, during the manufacturing process of the iPhone, Apple's top-selling item.
China Labor Watch and Green America contend Apple's manufacturing process involves the use of benzene and n-hexane, chemicals the activist groups argue can potentially harm the health of factory workers in China. Both groups jointly started an online petition called the "Bad Apple" which urges Apple to discontinue the use of these chemicals.
In the electronic industry, benzene is used as a cleaning and coating agent for electronic components. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR), long term exposure to benzene can cause cancer of the blood-forming organs, also known as leukemia, and changes in the reproductive system. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set an exposure level of benzene at 1 part per million (ppm).
Similar to benzene, n-hexane is typically used as a cleaning agent on electronic displays. n-hexane is often preferred due to its faster evaporation rate compared to isopropanol or other alcohols. As a result, manufacturers prefer its use since more electronic displays can be cleaned in a given period. Although n-hexane is not a known carcinogen, breathing large amounts over an extended period of time can cause numbness, muscle weakness, and potential paralysis of the arms and legs. OSHA has set an exposure level of n-hexane to 500 ppm.
In response to the activist groups, Apple issued a statement wherein it noted that the company had already stopped using many hazardous chemicals, including lead, mercury, brominated flame retardants, and PVC. Apple further noted that it requires all of its suppliers to comply with U.S. safety standards. According to Apple's Supplier Responsibility 2014 Progress Report, –Apple launched the Apple Supplier Environment, Health, and Safety (EHS) Academy and enrolled 240 supplier participants covering over 270,000 workers. Through the EHS Academy, Apple will continue to provide its suppliers with training on the proper way to handle chemical products, including industrial hygiene and the use of personal protective equipment.
However, according Elizabeth O'Connell, Green America's campaign director, it would cost Apple less than $1 per IPhone to design a safer alternative without the use of the benzene and n-Hexane. In 2013, Apple sold 150.2 million iPhones, which contributed to its $170.9 billion in revenue and $37 billion in profits.