The dark side of mobile technology

Anna Scantlin
Contributing Editor from Kansas City, MO
Published: April 13, 2014

I’m going to be shifting gears here a little bit. Normally we’d be talking about all of the wonderful things that mobile tech can do for us, how exciting it is looking back and seeing how far we’ve come, discussing all of the latest gadgets that hold our interest, and so on. Today, though, my article will be a little different, because there is another side of smartphones that, quite frankly, I didn’t even know existed up until recently. Since making this discovery, I have to admit that I am positively shocked at what I’m finding out.

When we look at smartphones, we see the future. We’re happy because these little computers can do so much for us. They can keep us connected via phone calls, texting, and various social networks; they serve as media players for videos, music, and photo albums; they can even serve as gaming entertainment. There’s a lot of great things that come from smartphones. Once you go deeper than the smartphone, however, things start to get depressing.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever really considered how smartphones were made. I never thought to concern myself with exactly how smartphones were made because I was too busy enjoying the product in my hands; the finished product was the most important part to me. I couldn’t have cared less about the process of how it got there. I assumed that most factories were operated entirely by machinery at this point, but I was wrong. Until recently, I had never heard about benzene or n-hexane, much less how they directly affect the workers responsible for putting our beloved smartphones together.

It started off with this short documentary called “The Human Cost of Electronics”. The video shows accounts of factory workers who have developed “occupational cancer” - cancer developed as a direct result of working with chemicals in these factories, such as benzene or n-hexane. Cancer of any form is serious, but I think it is most alarming because the people in the film are people are around my age. I’m only 23, and I feel like my life is just getting started. I can’t imagine what these people are going through being around my age and dealing with cancer, and knowing that it was developed as a direct result from their jobs that deal directly with these chemicals for up to 15 hours in a given work day, 7 days a week, in a building with no windows or proper ventilation.

Benzene is a category 1 carcinogen that is banned in most Western countries for industrial use; there is an exception for benzene use in China given that so many electronics are created here. Yes, you read that correctly: We make exceptions to our safety standards in the name of sleek-looking electronics. And yes, this chemical is in all of our smartphones - every single one. Don’t bother looking for one that doesn’t have it, because it doesn’t exist right now. That doesn’t mean that we can’t try and help the situation.

Network Coordinator of Good Electronics in Armsterdam, Pauline Overeem, encourages people to bring up these devastating conditions to manufacturers in order to bring them to an end. “It is part of supply chain responsibility. Banning the use of benzene should be part of that,” says Overeem. 

Fortunately, there are alternatives to benzene. Toxicology experts estimate that replacing benzene with safer solvents would only cost around $1 extra per phone. 

I would gladly pay more money for a phone made in safer work environments than buying a cheaper phone knowing that somebody contracted a serious illness in the process. These people are working in these factories trying to build towards a better life, like anybody would, and ended up terminally ill in the process. It breaks my heart, and I had no idea. I am certain that there are a lot of people who had no idea, which is why I felt compelled to write about it.

Nobody deserves those conditions. If there is a way to fix it, then it should be done. Manufacturers must replace benzene and n-hexane with safer alternatives. Money is not an excuse not to.