Friday, March 19, 2010

iPhone Chemical Tied to Mystery iLLness: WOW!!!

(March 19) -- A smooth, shiny surface bursting with bright colors -- the screens on the iPhone, iPod Touch and forthcoming iPad beg to be touched, just as Apple Inc. intended.

But a chemical used to imbue the popular gadgets with their tantalizing touch-screen quality is suspected of causing extensive nerve damage to numerous factory workers in China.

Various news agencies have reported that more than 40 workers at the Wintek Corp. electronics assembly factory in Suzhou were hospitalized in connection with exposure to the chemical n-hexane while working on Apple products. As many as four workers may have died from the exposure, and English Eastday reports up to 100 people have been sickened since last year.

Rich Schultz, AP
A chemical used to make the screens of some of Apple's most popular devices, like this iPhone, is suspected of causing nerve damage to the factory workers who assemble them.

N-hexane is a flammable, fast-drying chemical made from crude oil that was used to clean touch screens in the final stages of the factory's Apple product assembly wing. It is also found in a variety of other industries, including printing, textiles, furniture and shoemaking, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

HHS also explains that exposure to the compound can occur merely by breathing air containing its fumes: "Since it is in gasoline, nearly everyone is exposed to very small amounts of n-hexane in the air." But inhaled in larger doses, over a longer period of time, the cleaner can damage the nervous system, producing symptoms of numbness, muscle weakness and temporary paralysis of the arms and legs lasting up to two years, according to multiple studies.

That's similar to the effects reported by the Wintek workers. The factory is alleged to have begun illegally using n-hexane in place of alcohol to keep up with rising demand, despite not having any of the proper procedures or equipment in place to handle it. Wintek is a Taiwan-based manufacturer that supplies not only Apple with touch screens, but other big-name companies as well, including Nokia.

However, international news Web site GlobalPost recently reported "Nokia says it confirmed n-hexane was not used on its components in the Suzhou factory -- an assertion that the workers back up. The substance was used in the cleaning room on the second floor, the floor designated for Apple products, six former and current employees said." GlobalPost said it had secured photographs of the suspected contaminated area via an employee.

In addition to interviewing former and current workers, GlobalPost attempted to reach out to Apple for comment but has not received a response.

Given Apple's famed penchant for secrecy, that's not exactly news in-and-of itself. However, the company has publicly moved to respond to inhumane conditions at its suppliers' workplaces before.

Just last month, for instance, Apple released the results of an internal audit, which found that three different parts' factories employed child laborers who were subsequently either let go or not allowed back in until they were of age. Apple also announced a thorough review to prevent the practice from ever happening again. Similarly, it has terminated contracts with factories where "excessive working hours and seven days of continuous work" were common.

As writer Matthew Humphries put it:
If the poisoning and poor working conditions turn out to be true, we should expect Apple to take action. The company doesn't want to be associated with such practices, and Wintek may lose its contract. Otherwise guarantees need to be made that future production will follow more stringent rules and the employees affected receive ongoing care. No one wants to buy a gadget that potentially made a worker ill; and possibly for the rest of their lives.
Studies have shown that while illness from overexposure to n-hexane can be long and painful, it is possible for a person to largely recover if the source of toxicity is removed and they are given the proper medical treatment. But "a diminution of the tendon reflexes, particular that of the Achilles tendon, may persist," explains the Enyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety.
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