THE BLOG

Don't Eat Your iPhone: Greenpeace's Warning -- Publicity Stunt or Genuine Risk?

Oct 16, 2007 | Updated May 25, 2011

Don't eat plastic - or electronic consumer items. That's the real message behind Greenpeace's latest study on the supposed safety of the iPhone if you look at the evidence logically.

There are chemicals in the plastic used to make the phone, phthalates in the vinyl coverings of the ear bud, and fire retardants to stop the phone from lighting up your groin if a radical misfortune in the electronic circuits managed to start a fire. Rodents that were made eat the equivalent of several iPhones worth of these chemicals over the course of their lifetimes developed a range of health problems, which is not especially surprising. This is how you find out if something is poisonous.

The key principle of toxicology is, however, that the dose makes the poison. And what strains credulity is that if you make a call with an iPhone, or keep one in your pocket, you are putting your health at risk.

Tellingly, Greenpeace didn't actually test to see if the phthalates in your earbuds (which only amount to 1.5 percent of the vinyl) can migrate into your ears - or how they might be able to migrate from the earbuds (wouldn't they be trapped by earwax?) And because they didn't do that, then they can't legitimately say that the iPhone is a health hazard. Pretty much anything is toxic if you ingest enough of it - water, for instance. But we don't say water is toxic just because it's out there.

And even if there might be some chemical migration, the reality is that our exposure to phthalates overwhelmingly comes from food and dust, according to the National Institutes for Health. The amount of phthalates Apple is contributing to this measure is, almost certainly, negligible.

But phthalates have become the chemical bogeyman du jour, even though the evidence that they represent a real health hazard is largely hypothetical. A recent, albeit small and short, study of 26 Danish men who were covered from head-to-toe in a phthalate-loaded topical cream for a week found that absorption of the chemicals had no effect on hormone levels. Chinese vinyl workers continually exposed to massive quantities of certain phthalates through inhalation and dermal absorption during manufacture showed a modest decrease in testosterone as the level of the phthalates increased. But there was no apparent effect on fertility.

Nevertheless, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has just signed a bill banning phthalates in rubber toys in California - even though European Union scientists and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission had concluded in safety reviews that the evidence showed no risk to children.

Greenpeace has been badgering Apple to go green for quite a while now, and the campaign has generated massive publicity for the organization. Hundreds of news stories have been written - and the latest crop note that another environmental group, The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) is going to sue Apple on the basis of this new Greenpeace study and because these chemicals are a hazard to health.

But it's hard, given Greenpeace's repeated failure to show a demonstrable risk to consumers from the chemicals in the iPhone, or the iPod, or the iMac, not to see this campaign as a case of environmental terrorism.