Is Your Cell Phone Toxic?

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Updated: 6/16 1:43 pm

Oct. 3, 2012 -- Gadget gurus who just upgraded to the iPhone 5 can feel good about one thing: It’s one of the greenest and least toxic cell phones on the market, according to a new report.

Other phones that did well include the Motorola Citrus, which was the least toxic of all the phones tested, the iPhone 4S, the LG Remarq, and two Samsung devices, the Captivate and the Evergreen.

Still, none of the phones was 100% hazard-free, says Jeff Gearhart, research director of the nonprofit Ecology Center, the Ann Arbor-based environmental group that tested the phones. All of the models contained concerning levels of bromine, chlorine, lead, cadmium, or mercury.

“We really want to make people aware that these electronics have [these] kind of embedded hazards that come with them,” Gearhart says. “We want to highlight the fact that that exists and let people know what those are.”

The most toxic phones were Palm’s Treo 750 and m125, the Blackberry Storm 9530, the Nokia N95, and the Motorola MOTO W233 Renew. The worst of the worst was the iPhone 2G.

The test results are striking because they show how one company, Apple, has made great strides in getting toxic materials out of its products, Gearhart says.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

The full report on the testing can be found on the web site healthystuff.org.

Many Mobile Phones Are Hazardous Waste

Cell phones can contain more than 40 toxic chemicals and heavy metals. While there’s no evidence to suggest that these are dangerous to users, they are a problem when the phones are being made and after they are thrown away.

“Cell phones are particularly problematic because they are small, so people can easily toss them in domestic waste in a way you wouldn’t think of doing for large computers,” says Oladele A. Ogunseitan, PhD, MPH, a professor of public health and social ecology at the University of California, Irvine. Ogunseitan studies the toxicity of mobile phones, but he was not involved in the current research.

Americans toss millions of phones each year in favor of newer technology. According to the EPA, 141 million mobile phones were junked in 2009, the latest year for which numbers are available. Only about 12 million of those were collected for recycling.

All those discarded phones may be taking a toll on the environment.

Experiments meant to duplicate landfill conditions show that many phones leach so much lead and other heavy metals into water that they meet federal and state definitions of hazardous waste.

About half of states now have laws that require consumers to recycle mobile phones, according to the nonprofit National Center for Electronics Recycling.

The new report comes from healthystuff.org and a group called iFixit. 

Researchers dismantled and scanned 36 different kinds of mobile phones, analyzing their parts for 35 different chemicals and heavy metals. Phones were ranked based on their levels of 12 chemicals and elements, particularly chlorine, bromine, cadmium, mercury, and lead.

Those chemicals persist for years once they are released into the environment. They have been linked to a wide range of ills in people and animals -- everything from reproductive problems to cancer to brain and kidney damage.

Finding a Better Phone

Researchers weren’t able to test every phone model. Gearhart says if the particular phone you’re interested in isn’t on the list, there are a couple of rules of thumb that can guide phone shoppers to less toxic choices.

  • “Green” phones generally are. Gearhart says he was pleasantly surprised to find that phones marketed as eco-friendly, like the Samsung Evergreen and the LG Remarq, often live up to their marketing.
  • Check to see if the phone meets RoHS standards. The European Union has banned the use of certain toxic materials in electronics through its Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive. Products that meet that standard, which is stricter than in the U.S., are sometimes marked as being RoHS or WEEE compliant.
  • Recycle your old phone. Many mobile phone providers and big box retailers now have programs to collect and recycle unwanted cell phones. Just be sure to erase any personal data before you turn in or sell your old mobile device.
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