The Problem with Benzene and Apple’s Off-Shore Solution

Submitted by aatkins on May 8, 2014

Chinese electronics workers are likely exposed to three times as much Benzene as US workers

Since launching our Bad Apple: End Smartphone Sweatshops campaign we’ve received a number of questions about benzene, one of the chemicals known to be causing worker illness, including leukemia, in electronics factories.

Benzene is both dangerous and ubiquitous.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies benzene as a “known human carcinogen” yet it is found in gasoline and cigarette smoke.  Like all chemical substances, the danger of exposure to benzene is in the dosage, both in terms of concentration and length of time of exposure.

In the US, OSHA has set the permissible exposure limit (PEL) to airborne benzene in the workplace to no more than 1 ppm for no longer than eight hours, or 40 hours per week.  Exposure at greater concentration for longer periods of time can have both acute and chronic health effects (detailed below).  It’s worthwhile to note here that while OSHA has set a PEL of 1 ppm, the World Health Organization recommends no safe level of human exposure to benzene[1] and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends only 0.1 ppm as an exposure limit or the lowest amount feasibly possible[2].  Additionally, the EPA, which was formerly run by Secretary Lisa Jackson, now Apple’s VP of Environmental Initiatives, monitors benzene limits in the air and in water.  The EPA’s maximum contaminant level for benzene (liquid form) in water is only 5 ppb (parts per billion), though the goal set by the EPA for benzene contamination is set at zero.

Benzene GraphAccording to the Ban Benzene campaign, the permissible exposure level for benzene in China for an eight hour day is set at 1.878 ppm, or roughly double the safe limit established by OSHA.  This is compounded by the fact that electronics workers in China work far more than 8 hours per day.  Workers in Apple supplier factories have been known to work up to 12 hours per day, and average 60 hours or more per week (according to investigations by China Labor Watch and the Fair Labor Association).[3],[4].  Assuming that these factories actually comply with legal limits, this means that workers in Apple’s supplier factories could potentially be exposed to roughly three times the legal permissible limits set for workers in the US.

Acute exposure to this cancer causing chemical can have the following major health effects on workers who are exposed to Benzene:

Acute Effects
According to the World Health Organization, acute exposure to benzene, meaning one-time exposure to high levels, can lead to immediate symptoms such as:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Tremors
  • Loss of Consciousness
  • Eye Irritation
  • Skin Irritation

At first glance, these symptoms may seem like common problems. Who doesn’t occasionally get headaches at work from staring at their computer screen for too long? Individually the symptoms may seem minor, but with daily exposure they can have detrimental effects on a person’s well-being.

Additionally, it’s important to put these symptoms into the context of working in a large electronics factory, often 6 days a week, for up to 12 hours per day. The work is repetitive and sometimes done while standing for extended periods. Exposure to a chemical that is known to cause dizziness or confusion, while also being expected to work long hours in order to meet high quotas, leaves electronics workers in a serious bind. Their choice: Speak up about their symptoms and face financial penalties for not meeting quotas, or perhaps even their job, or stay quiet and risk health consequences.

What’s worse is that workers may not even know what chemicals they are being exposed to and what the risks and warning signs are, especially in the case of benzene as its clear and at room temperature transforms from liquid to gas.  China Labor Watch has documented that the safety training programs in some of Apple’s major suppliers are not up to the legally required amount (24 hours minimum safety training) and were perfunctory rather than relevant to the actual safety risks of the job.[5]

The aforementioned issues though are not the only problems caused by exposure to benzene, nor are they the worst.  Prolonged, or “chronic,” exposure to benzene in factories increases an individual’s chances of contracting life-threatening illnesses.

Long-Term Effects of Chronic Exposure[6]
Long term effects are those that occur as a result of regular and ongoing exposure to a chemical substance.

  • Benzene is widely known and documented to cause cancer in humans and has been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen (the most risky) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Specifically, benzene can cause acute myeloid leukemia that leads to a rapid increase in abnormal white blood cells in bone marrow.  Additionally, those with benzene poisoning have an increased risk of mortality from leukemia.
  • Benzene causes reduced production of red and white blood cells in bone marrow which can cause aplastic anemia.
  • Benzene contributes to decreased resistance to infection because of the reduction of T-cell and B-cell proliferation.

Electronics factories are a breeding ground for these health problems.  Air recirculation systems designed to minimize dust may make electronics workers even more vulnerable to airborne chemicals like benzene. The current health and safety trainings and protective gear are not sufficient to protect workers from benzene and other chemicals they may be exposed to at work, especially for long periods of time.

For workers who do become ill on the job, it can be a lengthy and futile process to receive an occupational diagnosis, which means workers may not be able to collect compensation from their employers and will be left to pay for expensive treatment on their own, if they can afford it at all.  Sick workers must go through the arduous and sometimes corrupt process of receiving a diagnosis that verifies their illness was job-related, and even if they are able to receive such a diagnosis their treatment is sometimes overseen by the factories they worked for, again creating opportunities for corruption.

Everyone has the right to work. We all deserve decent work in order to support our families, contribute to our societies, and feel useful. But no one should have to trade this right for personal health and safety, like those workers who are making consumer electronics day in and day out.

Apple has shown its commitment to its employees in the US by offering healthcare and benefits above what is legally required.  However, the company’s commitment to its workers in China is not meeting legal limits (in regards to training hours), and is certainly not meeting internationally recognized safety limits, as workers are getting sick and injured on the job.

Please stand with Green America to ensure no workers need to lose their lives or livelihoods while assembling iPhones. We hope that all electronics workers will be free of these risks soon, and we hope that Apple will lead the way.

Take Action Today! Sign our petition to Apple to remove benzene from its supplier factories and protect more workers from getting sick >>


[1] Exposure to Benzene: A Major Health Concern, World Health Organization

[2] CDC and NIOSH Pocket Guide for Benzene

[3] Apple’s Unkept Promises: Investigation of Three Pegatron Group Factories, China Labor Watch

[4] Final Foxconn Verification Statue Report, Fair Labor Association

[5] Apple’s Unkept Promises: Investigation of Three Pegatron Group Factories, China Labor Watch

[6] The International Chemical Safety Card on Benzene provides a simple summary of occupational precautions and risks for benzene.

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