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The electronics manufacturing industry is far from clean in the areas of environmental sustainability and worker’s rights. At the intersection of these issues is the growing risk of worker illness due to exposure to dangerous chemicals.
The most popular electronics—from smartphones to laptops—require various chemicals in the manufacturing process for cleaning screens and component parts such as chips, or other purposes. Workers do not always have adequate protective gear or training for handling toxic substances. Exposure to dangerous chemicals can lead to cancer, leukemia, nerve damage, liver and kidney failure, and reproductive health issues, depending on the chemical and level of exposure.
In China, an estimated 130 million workers migrate from their homes in the countryside to the special economic zones where factories are situated. This is roughly half the US population. An estimated 12 million of these people end up working in consumer electronics factories. The work is grueling. According to Electronics Watch, workers receive low wages, often work 12-hour days, six to seven days per week, are forced to work overtime, are discriminated against, are unable to organize, and receive few or no benefits such sick leave, holidays, or job security1.
These young workers, between 14 and 25 years old, move in hopes of working hard so they can help to support their families and save enough money to start a family of their own. What these workers don’t realize when they embark is that they may be risking their health, future ability to work, and even their lives.
Despite Apple’s Code of Conduct that prohibits the handling of dangerous chemicals without protective gear or training, extensive problems persist. Recent cases in Apple supplier factories have occurred in which workers have contracted leukemia due to benzene exposure2, nerve damage due to n-hexane exposure3, and skin conditions due to handling acidic chemicals without protection4.
There are hundreds of chemicals that are routinely used in electronics manufacturing processes—some are known carcinogens and reproductive toxins, and others are largely untested. Manufacturers do not readily disclose the chemicals they are using. Protective gear and rigorous trainings on safe handling are needed but often not enforced, and problems of exposure are sometimes not detected until workers are already sick. In the case of benzene, there are suitable and safer alternatives that are only slightly more expensive.5
Committing to eliminate benzene and other chemicals known to be harmful to human health from Apple’s supply chain would help prevent more workers from losing their lives or livelihoods themselves because of occupational illnesses from making iPhones.
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