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With nearly 6 billion cell phone users in the world, 1.1 billion of which are reportedly mobile-broadband enabled phones or smartphones (ITU, 2013). With 7 billion peoples in the planet, we are looking a pretty connected earth, in a way that perhaps never before. The consequences and repercussions behind this current reality, will be the …   Read More

With nearly 6 billion cell phone users in the world, 1.1 billion of which are reportedly mobile-broadband enabled phones or smartphones (ITU, 2013). With 7 billion peoples in the planet, we are looking a pretty connected earth, in a way that perhaps never before. The consequences and repercussions behind this current reality, will be the topic of another article. Looking at these numbers, it is not hard to realize that we are also talking a couple billions and billions of cell phone units being manufactured, certainly way more than 6 billion, if we are only to account for now older generation handsets, we are looking at way more headsets than we can wrap our heads around. There are many sad realities that exist in world of large manufacturing of commodities. However, the cell phone unit manufacturing is another sad story, and it is a story for which many of are utterly unaware of. In order to explore the cell phone manufacturing, one must ask about the materials that make up this very fashionable market. To make this point much easier, let’s focus on the materials that make up the iPhone: Bromine, chlorine, lead and mercury. These are just a few of the materials that make up some of the parts of the iPhone such as the case, processor, screen and circuit.

Materials present in the case, processor, screen and circuit

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CNET created infographic which shows the breakdown of elements in an iPhone.

Bromine:  A chemical element which is corrosive, and toxic. The compound that make up bromine occurs out of soluble crystalline minerals like halide salts. From pharmacological point of view, the interaction between bromine and us, humans, can produce effects to our nervous systems, that is if you attempt to lick the case or if you come in contact with much of the body of the phone. Chlorine: A chemical element, the second lightest halogen after fluorine. At the elemental level chlorine, in high concentrations, is extremely dangerous and poisonous for all loving organism, and it should be noted that historically chlorine was used during the Great War as a gaseous chemical warfare agent. Lead: A chemical element belonging to the carbon group. If ingested, lead is poisonous to animals and humans. It can damage the nervous systems and it can even cause brain disorders. Like mercury, lead is a neurotoxin that accumulates in both in soft tissues and the bones. Mercury. A chemical element which is used commonly for things like thermometers, barometers and such. Mercury occurs in deposits throughout the world, though in a different form referred as mercury cinnabar. This raw form of mercury is highly toxic when ingested or when inhaled by its mere dusty form. The term “mercury poisoning” refers to contact with water-soluble forms of mercury, which have become popular and common when eating seafood which is contaminated with mercury. Now that we have a sense of the materials on those parts of the phone, let’s look at the primary or perhaps most costly and important part of the phone.

Materials found in the phone’s battery and speaker

The iPhone, like many of its competing products, make used of what is termed as “rare earths,” in reality this really refers to rare metals, because they are usually found scattered  in very small quantities which are economically difficult to extract. Some of these metals include names like scandium, yttrium, byproducts or copper, gold, uranium, phosphates, iron and zinc ores. I couldn’t yet get my hands on a document which would tell me specially which of these materials are found in the battery of an iPhone, however right the way and with a very basic understanding of chemistry I know that uranium is a radioactive material. Now, I know the body is able to withstand a small amount of radiation, this cannot be good news. The real problem or harm with rare earths is not so much in the level of toxicity, but rather on the procedures and methods of extraction companies employ. The working conditions that rare metal miners undergo are often times deploring and appalling. In many cases, not only the extraction of rare metals, but the processing of them have been known to cause pollution, erosion, damage to vegetation and in high concentration, rare metals become highly radioactive which is bad news to the workers handling it. The rare metal mining is increasingly growing industry of which China is 95% responsible for. A few countries, including the United States, have been trying to do their own rare metal extraction projects. The demand for smart phones has given this industry a big boost in the last couple of years and there is really no sight of the end as more and more people become owners of a precious smart phones. As an owner of an iPhone myself, I am concerned about the practices which became one of my most precious possessions. Such are also the knowingly devastating cases at the Foxconn plant in China, where many Apple products are manufactured. Companies like Apple and Samsung could become even more successful at their game if they were to engage in practices with social responsibility in mind rather than simply topping each other out for more financial gains. I can guarantee this is the way either once can win, because then everybody wins.   Sources: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/physics/rare-earth-elements-in-cell-phones/ http://www.techhive.com/article/2011049/newer-smartphones-have-fewer-toxic-chemicals-teardown-finds.html http://www.rodalenews.com/toxic-chemicals-and-iphone-5 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2213366/Chemical-breakdown-What-really-goes-new-iPhone.html http://e360.yale.edu/feature/boom_in_mining_rare_earths_poses_mounting_toxic_risks/2614/

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