80 environmental and human rights organizations, socially responsible investment firms, and occupational health professionals from 27 countries sent a letter today to Apple's VP of Environmental Affairs Lisa Jackson, the former head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), urging her to address worker safety in its supplier factories in China.
The groups are specifically calling on Jackson to use her influence to eliminate and replace all hazardous chemicals used in Apple’s Chinese supplier factories with safe alternatives. According to the groups, this is particularly critical for benzene and other highly hazardous chemicals which can cause cancer, reproductive and neurological harm. The cost of doing so, the groups estimate, is less than $1 per device.
While at the EPA, Jackson monitored benzene levels in the water and air to ensure no one was exposed to dangerous levels of this known human carcinogen. According to the groups, Jackson is in a unique position to make worker health and safety a priority in her second year at the company. Apple’s workers could be exposed to more than three times the amount of hazardous chemicals legally permissible in the U.S.
Thousands of chemicals are used in the process of making electronics devices, including many chemicals known to be carcinogens, reproductive toxins, neurotoxins and others that are largely untested.
Apple does not disclose a full list of the chemicals used in production, but two chemicals known to be used and of immediate concern include benzene and n-hexane, both of which have been linked to worker illness in Apple supplier factories. The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies benzene in Group 1 as it is known to be carcinogenic to humans and the EPA classifies benzene in Group A, as a known human carcinogen for all routes of exposure. Prolonged exposure to benzene can cause leukemia. N-hexane is a neurotoxin that can cause nerve damage.
Apple recently launched a “Better” campaign to redouble its sustainability efforts and showcase its sustainability achievements such as using only renewable energy to power data centers and exceeding Energy Star standards across its entire product line. The company says it is now redoubling its efforts with a new intensified focus on sustainability.
Apple has made a series of bold pronouncements recently regarding its commitment to sustainability: In its latest Supplier Responsibility report, released in February, the company said it will reveal the names and certification status of all minerals suppliers in an effort to eliminate the use of conflict minerals from its supply chain. And in March, CEO Tim Cook told shareholders that investors who don’t agree with Apple’s sustainability commitments should divest.