Apple bans benzene and n-hexane from final product assembly

15:24 PM | August 14, 2014 | Rebecca Coons

Apple announced today that it will ban the use of benzene and n-hexane in the final assembly of its electronics as part of a renewed effort to eliminate unsafe work conditions since the addition of ex-EPA chief Lisa Jackson as v.p./environmental initiatives in May 2013.

Apple previously phased out the use of polyvinyl chloride in its power cords, as well as mercury in its displays and brominated flame retardants in enclosures. “Our history proves that the electronics industry can make use of green chemistry,” Jackson says. “It’s time now to do even better, and we are eager to take on this challenge.”

The company will invest in research on new materials and technologies, Jackson adds. “We’ll assemble a new advisory board composed of leaders in safer chemicals and pollution prevention to advance our efforts to minimize or eliminate toxins from our products and supply chain. And we’ll listen—convening roundtables with stakeholders to seek out the best science, data, and solutions.”

According to Apple's 2011 Supplier Responsibility report, 137 workers at the Suzhou facility of Wintek, one of Apple's suppliers, suffered "adverse health effects" following exposure to n-hexane. The factory had also reconfigured operations without changing their ventilation system. "Apple considered this series of incidents to be a core violation of worker endangerment," the report says.

Activist groups, including China's Labor Watch and Green America, had been pressuring Apple to stop the use of n-hexane and benzene from its manufacturing processes. Green America had launched a campaign to get Apple to ban benzene, citing exposure limits that did not take into account the longer workday of Chinese electronic assembly workers and the availability of safer alternatives, like cyclohexane and heptane.

In a statement, Apple noted that it has received “some questions” about whether workers in its supply chain were being harmed by unsafe exposure to benzene and n-hexane. Apple’s Regulated Substance Specification (RSS) had set occupational exposure limits of 0.5 parts per million (ppm) for benzene—a level recommended by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists—and 28 ppm for n-hexane, in line with safety standards set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The company says it conducted almost 200 factory inspections in 2013 to ensure those limits were being met.

The investigation included the company’s 22 final assembly facilities, which collectively employ 500,000 people. The four-month investigation found no widespread use of benzene or n-hexane and no evidence of worker health and safety being put at risk from exposure. In 18 of 22 facilities, the company found no evidence of benzene or n-hexane at all. In four of the facilities, Apple detected the chemicals at limits below its RSS or being used under a fume hood with proper safety precautions in place.

“While we didn’t find any evidence of workers being put at risk, we did learn some things from our investigation,” Apple says. “First, we concluded that safer alternatives to these chemicals exist. So we have updated our RSS to explicitly prohibit the use of benzene or n-hexane in cleaning agents and degreasers in the final assembly process. We have also tightened our benzene restriction vene further, to 0.1 ppm to 0.5 ppm.” Also, because the investigation traced the presence of benzene or n-hexane to cleaners and degreasers that did not list the chemicals on their MSDS, Apple says it has updated its RSS to require facilities with final assembly processes to test, at a certified lab, all cleaning agents and degreasers before they are used in production. The updated RSS takes effect 1 September.