Discovery News
by Tim Wall

The pollution produced by cell phones can be hard to locate, and it’s not just the fault of the iPhone 5’s much maligned map app. From production to disposal, cell phones contaminate the environment. A recent study by the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor, Michigan and ifixit.com dissected 36 different models of cell phone and found that every one of them contained at least one of the toxic elements: lead, bromine, chlorine, mercury or cadmium.

The least toxic telephone was the Motorola Citrus, whereas the dirtiest dialer was the iPhone 2G. Apple had made big improvements over the years. The iPhone 4S and 5 both ranked in the top 5 of cleanest phones.

“Even the best phones from our study are still loaded with chemical hazards,” said the research director of the Ecology Center and founder of HealthyStuff.org, where the results were published, Jeff Gearhart, in a press release.

“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.”

Altogether, 1,106 individual phones were disassembled and tested by the team at ifixit.com using X-ray fluorescence, a technique that bombards an object with radiation then measures the radiation that is re-released by the object. Specific materials can be identified by the characteristic signature of radiation they re-release.

The biggest pollution and health risk from the phones comes in the mining of the minerals used in the phones, the production of the devices, and their subsequent disposal or recycling.

“We’re not making any claim that there’s any in-use exposure hazard from these mobile phones,” Gearhart told the Detroit Free Press.

The mining of some of the tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold used in cell phone production has been associated with exploitation and brutality in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said Gearhart in a press release. Once the life of the phone is over, many of them are shipped to China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, and the Philippines where the hands-on recycling process there exposes workers to dangerous chemicals, according to the release.

“In 2009, 2.37 million tons of electronics were ready for what the Environmental Protection Agency calls ‘end-of-life management’—code for broken, dead, outdated, and unwanted devices,” said Kyle Wiens, CEO of ifixit.com, in a press release. “Of the digital castoffs, only 25 percent made it into recycling centers. We can’t allow the other 75 percent of our old electronics to become waste. All those toxins add up. E-waste is an enormous problem that can result in toxic chemicals seeping into drinking water and poisoning the environment.”

Healthystuff.org recommends the e-Stewards website for consumers looking to responsibly dispose of their cell phones and other electronics.