High technology feels so clean—no coal or steam or mess, just cool aluminum, sleek plastics, and polished glass. But that clean surface hides an interior that is far messier and more toxic. In partnership with HealthyStuff.org, we bring you a chemical analysis of 36 mobile phones, including the iPhone 5.

Of course, many people realize that electronics manufacturing requires enormous amounts of energy, materials, and toxic chemicals. The highly neurotoxic n-hexane, used during manufacturing to clean glass, is still poisoning cell phone plant workers more than a year after reports of sick workers first surfaced. But it’s easy to forget that toxic chemicals also lurk behind your phone’s smooth face and behind your computer’s keyboard. Yet lurk they do: high tech parts are made up of hazardous flame retardants, PVC, bromine, and heavy metals such as lead, mercury, tin, cadmium, and chromium. The list is long and rightfully intimidating. These are not things we want in our water or air.

What hazardous chemicals, precisely, are found in mobile phones? Until recently, most answers to that question were speculative. Manufacturers are tight-lipped about their secret recipes, which they keep under strict lock and key. The only sure way to know what is in today’s mobile phones is to take them apart and analyze their chemical contents. So we teamed up with HealthyStuff.org to do exactly that.

In general, the results are hopeful. Newer phones are being made with fewer hazardous chemicals: every phone that was ranked of “high concern” was released before 2010. The newest phones, including the iPhone 5, are some of the best. Nevertheless, many toxics remain.


Your Phone Can End Up in Your Lungs

Why does it matter? Toxic chemicals don’t disappear when you throw your phone away. Though electronics recycling is up in general in the US, cell phone recycling rates lag behind. Each year, Americans discard 130 million cell phones, of which only 8% are recycled properly. When phones are not recycled, they often end up in landfills or incinerators, which can release heavy metals into groundwater and air, respectively.

Some states ban electronics from landfills and incinerators, but currently, 32 states have no such ban. After a company dumped electrical equipment at one landfill in Indiana, for example, 41,748 tons of land, including the groundwater underneath, were contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, which are linked to liver, thyroid, and immune diseases. Though operating landfills are required to keep leachate within EPA limits, when the landfill is full and finally capped, liners stop undergoing repair and the remaining electronics will continue to leach toxics into the soil. Researchers at a Florida university found that lead from cathode ray tubes leached at more than three times the EPA regulatory limit.

Even sending a phone to an electronics recycler will not always keep it from polluting the environment. Some “recyclers” actually ship used electronics overseas to places such as Ghana, China, and India. In the best cases, these electronics are refurbished or repaired, used, and eventually dumped (usually in landfills without expensive liners to protect groundwater). Unfortunately, formal recycling practices in developing countries are currently minimal at best, where they exist at all.

Occasionally, unsalvageable electronics are informally recycled in much more harmful ways—for example, dissolved in open-acid baths in Guiyu or burned by young workers in Agbogbloshie. There are precious metals in electronics. One million recycled phones contain 35,000 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, and 75 pounds of gold. Thus, dissolving or burning circuit boards to get at the copper within can be profitable, but it can result in elevated blood lead levels and poses many other serious risks to workers’ health.

Throwing a phone away doesn’t make it disappear. As William McDonough and Michael Braungart, authors of Cradle to Cradle, put it, “‘Away’ does not really exist. ‘Away’ has gone away.” The chemicals inside phones have a serious and far-reaching global impact.

What We Found

So, to learn more about chemicals in phones on the market today, HealthyStuff.org researchers took apart 36 phones and submitted their components to X-ray fluorescence spectrometry—a process that determines the chemical composition of a material. The researchers then rated and ranked the phones on a scale of 0 – 5, lowest being best, in three ways: by chemical (for each of 12 commonly found hazardous chemicals, such as bromine, mercury, and lead), by component (case, screen, solder, circuit board, etc.), and overall.

By overall ranking, six of the 36 phones are of “low concern” (including the iPhone 5, the Motorola Citrus, and the Samsung Captivate). Twenty-four of the phones are of “medium concern” (including the Samsung Eternity, the Motorola Droid X, and the BlackBerry Curve 8530). The remaining six phones are of “high concern” (including the Nokia N95 and iPhone 2G).

As Apple is the biggest company in the world, we expect them to set the bar high when it comes to environmental responsibility—especially since they claim to make “the most environmentally responsible products in our industry.” The HealthyStuff analysis demonstrates that Apple is actively reducing toxic chemicals in their products. The iPhone has undergone a steady, gradual toxic chemical improvement in the last five years: the iPhone 2G received the worst overall score of all ranked phones, but the iPhone 4 and 5 are now among the top ten percent of phones. Nearly all the other phones that were marked “low concern” are specifically marketed as green phones. The Motorola Citrus, for example, is called “easy on the eyes, earth and pocketbook.” Samsung calls their Evergreen, similarly, “a phone that fits your eco-friendly view as easily as it fits your pocket.” Of the high market share phones analyzed, the iPhone 4 and 5 easily rank best, with fewer toxic chemicals both by component and by chemical.

Curiously, manufacturers are not consistent about their use of toxic chemicals across their product lines. Samsung makes three of the best-ranked phones: the Captivate, Evergreen, and Reclaim. Yet it also makes the much more poorly rated SCH-U410, which received an overall score of 4.18.

Also worthy of note, phones that scored well overall did not necessarily fare well in every category. The “low concern” Samsung Reclaim had a “high concern” proportion of arsenic. Twenty-four of the phones (nearly 70%) had a “high concern” proportion of copper.

Health Should Be a Bottom Line

Major cell phone manufacturers and providers play up their green image. Sprint currently brags on every page about having been ranked #3 among the 500 greenest companies in America. Apple has bragged for a long time about their superior “toxic substance removal” (for the record, less than 500 parts per million counts as “removal”), touting their elimination of many hazardous chemicals, such as brominated flame retardants.

There is a trend of less toxics over time—especially for Apple. That’s good, but it’s not good enough. We can’t just pat ourselves on our backs and rest on our laurels. Many toxics remain.

Toxic chemicals do not disappear when we finish with our electronics. We cannot simply throw them away—whether electronics are shredded, landfilled, or exported, the toxics must come out somehow. “Better” is not “perfect.” There is room for improvement in every phone, by every manufacturer. Health is at stake—the health of Americans, the health of children burning electronics in Ghana, and the health of the people who inherit our landfills. So we must encourage manufacturers to make cleaner devices, to use our devices as long as possible before discarding them, and to support better recycling practices around the world.

More information, including diagrams of many of the other phones analyzed and a full list of rankings, is available here, at HealthyStuff.org.

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