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How toxic is the iPhone 5?

<p>A new scorecard evaluates hazardous chemicals in mobile phones, including Apple&#39;s latest hit, the iPhone 5.</p>

Would you buy the iPhone 5 if you knew it was full of toxics? Luckily, you don't have to worry about that, as Apple's latest mobile phone got a clean bill of health from organizations that studied toxics in mobile phones.

IT managers may find the new study incredibly useful: It ranks 36 different phones released in the last five years based on the relative concentration and presence of toxic chemicals. Ten mobile phone manufacturers, including Apple, Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, LG Electronics, Nokia and Samsung were included in the study, which was a joint effort between Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center and

Apple recently made headlines on another green-products front, when it reversed, after just a few days, its much-maligned decision to withdraw from the EPEAT green electronics registry, which many governments and companies use to determine their electronics purchasing policies.

The Ecology Center study looked at levels of toxins like mercury and lead in components such as the screen, solder and processor. Phones were ranked on a qualititative scale from "Low" to "Medium" to "High" and were also given a numeric rating from 2.6 (the lowest score) to 5.0 (the highest). A lower score indicates that less toxic chemicals were present, while a higher score signals a more-toxic profile.

Samsung phones had the highest average rating of all phones tested. While Apple showed the greatest improvement of any manufacturer in the study among phone models released in the last five years, none of the phones tested was free of toxic chemicals.

“Even the best phones from our study are still loaded with chemical hazards,” said Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center and founder of “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.”

The iPhones 4S and 5 were among only six phones with scores below 3.0, at 2.75 and 2.69, respectively. At 2.56, the Motorola Citrus clocked in with the lowest score. Also given top marks: the LG Remarq, the Samsung Captivate and the Samsung Evergreen. The vast majority of phones evaluated -- about two-thirds -- fell in the "Medium" category. The iPhone 4 just missed a "Low" ranking, as did the Samsung Reclaim and Galaxy S III.

The study's worst rankings highlight the evolution of Apple's products over the last few years. The iPhone 2G, released in 2007, was given a solid 5.0, with high levels of bromine, mercury, chlorine, lead and other chemicals. Also in the 2G's company among phones with high scores: the Palm M125, the Motorola MOTO W233 Renew, the Nokia N95 and the BlackBerry Storm 9530.

IT managers concerned about toxic chemical exposure should look to newer phone models, as the study showed overall product ratings have improved by a third since 2007, and leading manufacturers have begun a shift to safer materials and chemistries.

Among the changes manufacturers are making:

  • Using less hazardous resins, including thermoplastic copolymers and polyamide to replace PVC in cabling and other applications;
  • Avoiding the need for cabling through simplified design
  • Using mercury-free LCD displays and arsenic-free glass
  • Using bromine- and chlorine-free printed circuit board laminates
  • Moving to less toxic, reactive phosphorous-based flame retardant chemistries

“Consumer demand for more sustainable mobile phones is driving companies to produce better products,” said Gearhart. “We also need better federal and international policy to manage both chemicals and e-waste, as well as to promote sustainable design.”

Photo of rubbish bin full of old cellphones provided by bakalusha via Shutterstock.

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