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The toxic substances inside your mobile phone

SCI & TECH
By - | October 6th 2012

- Adapted from Daily Mail

When you look at your sleek, shiny phone it may look clean - excepting perhaps a few scuffs and smears from normal wear and tear.

But look below the surface and you will find an interior that is far more toxic than most people realise.

Researchers have undertaken a chemical analysis of 36 mobile handsets - including the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S III - to find out which ones pose the most risk to the health of humans and our environment.

Ubiquitous electronic gadgets harbour a staggering array of toxic chemicals, from hazardous flame retardants, PVC and bromine to heavy metals like lead, tin and chromium - and even mercury and cadmium.

However the hazardous ingredients of mobile phones have long been kept under wraps by manufacturers who are tight lipped about the recipes they use for their high-tech components.

The only way to find out then, is to take apart the gadgets and analyse their chemical components - which experts from ifixit.org and healthystuff.org have now done.

HeathyStuff.org sampled 36 different mobile phones that had been released in the last 5 years. The phones were completely disassembled and interior and exterior components were sampled by X-ray Fluorescence spectrometry - a process which determines the chemical composition of a material.

The researchers then ranked the phones on a scale of 0-5 - with lowest being the best - according to three criteria: by chemical, by component and overall.

The Motorola Citrus ranked the least toxic phone followed by the iPhone 4 S and the LG Remarq. The new iPhone 5 ranked 5th - better than its main competitor, Samsung's Galaxy S III, which ranked 9th.

The most toxic phone tested was the iPhone 2G, which was so poisonous it prompted a report by environmental group Greenpeace warning of the environmental dangers it posed.

Every phone sampled in the study contained at least one of following 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.

Emissions during disposal and recycling of phones as electronic waste, or 'e-waste', are particularly problematic. 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 50-80 per cent is exported to countries such as China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam and the Philippines, where there is a labour-intensive, informal recycling infrastructure that often lacks environmental and human health safeguards.

Meanwhile, the mining of some tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold vital for use in the manufacture of mobile phones has been linked to bloody conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Centre and founder of HealthyStuff.org, said: 'Even the best phones from our study are still loaded with chemical hazards.

“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.”

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