Hold the phone! Tests find hazardous chemicals in iPhone 5, Samsung Galaxy S III and other cells

Thirty-six phones tested for lead, mercury, hazardous flame retardants and more

Tests of 36 different cell phones, including the recently released iPhone 5 and Samsung’s Galaxy S III, found that each of them contained at least one of these hazardous chemicals: lead, bromine, chlorine, mercury and cadmium.

"These hazardous substances can pollute throughout a product’s life cycle, including when the minerals are extracted; when they are processed; during phone manufacturing; and at the end of the phone’s useful life," according to Ecology Center research director Jeff Gearhart, founder of HealthyStuff.org.

The Ecology Center teamed up with technology gurus at ifixit.com for the testing; the results were released earlier this month at www.HealthyStuff.org and www.ifixit.com.

The Motorola Citrus ranked “least toxic phone,” followed by the iPhone 4S and the LG Remarq. The new iPhone 5 ranked 5th, better than its primary competitor, Samsung’s Galaxy S III, which ranked 9th. However, Samsung was the overall top rated manufacturer based on average product ratings. The most toxic phone tested was the iPhone 2G. The full list of rankings can be found at HealthyStuff.org.

There are other problems from the materials used in cell phones. Emissions during disposal and recycling of phones as electronic waste, or “e-waste,” are particularly problematic, Gearhart said. And the mining of some tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold used in mobile phones has been linked to conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“Even the best phones from our study are still loaded with chemical hazards,” Gearhart said. “These chemicals, which are linked to birth defects, impaired learning and other serious health problems, have been found in soils at levels 10 to 100 times higher than background levels at e-waste recycling sites in China. We need better federal regulation of these chemicals, and we need to create incentives for the design of greener consumer electronics.”

A 2004 study found that three-quarters of all cell phones leach lead at levels that would qualify them as hazardous waste. While tracking e-waste is difficult, it is estimated that 50 percent to 80 percent is exported to countries such as China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam and the Phillipines, where there is a labor-intensive, informal recycling infrastructure that often lacks environmental and human health safeguards.

"In 2009, 2.37 million tons of electronics were ready for what the Environmental Protection Agency calls ‘end-of-life management’—code for broken, dead, outdated, and unwanted devices,” said Kyle Wiens, CEO of ifixit.com. “Of the digital castoffs, only 25 percent made it into recycling centers. We can't allow the other 75 percent of our old electronics to become waste. All those toxics add up. E-waste is an enormous problem that can result in toxic chemicals seeping into drinking water and poisoning the environment.”

Most of the 36 cell phones analyzed were models released in the last 5 years. The phones tested represent 10 mobile phone manufacturers, including: Apple, Hewlett-Packard Development Company, HTC Corporation, Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd, LG Electronics, Motorola, Nokia Corporation, Palm, Research in Motion and Samsung Electronics.

The sample represents the largest set ever released for any electronic product. In total, 1,105 samples were analyzed for 35 different chemicals and elements. The phones were completely disassembled and interior and exterior components were tested using X-ray Fluorescence (XRF).

“Consumer demand for more sustainable mobile phones is driving companies to produce better products,” Gearhart said. “We also need better federal and international policy to manage both chemicals and e-waste, as well as to promote sustainable design.”

Highlights of Findings:

  • All of the cell phones tested contain chemical hazards.
  • Samsung phones had the best average rating of all phones tested.
  • Apple, now among industry leaders, showed the greatest improvement. The iPhone 2G, introduced in 2007, rated as the poorest phone tested. The two most recent Apple phones, the 4S and 5, are among the best phones tested.
  • Newer phones are better than older phones. Overall product ratings have improved significantly (33%) since 2007. This reflects an increased focus on reducing chemical hazards by the industry.
  • Transition to safer alternatives is under way. Leading manufacturers, including Apple, Sony, Samsung and others have started to shift to safer materials and chemistries.

Manufacturers are cleaning up their act in part by: 1) Using less hazardous resins, including thermoplastic copolymers and polyamide to replace PVC in cabling and other applications; 2) Avoiding the need for cabling through simplified design; 3) Using mercury-free LCD displays and arsenic-free glass; 4) Using bromine- and chlorine-free printed circuit board laminates; and 5) Moving to less toxic, reactive phosphorous-based flame retardant chemistries.

EcoLink — October 2012 Ecolink
An online publication of the Ecology Center

Comments and questions are welcome.
Please send to EcoLink Editor.