Will banning these two chemicals improve conditions at Apple factories?

Apple announced Wednesday that it is banning the use of benzene and n-hexane in the final assembly stage of its products that include the iPhone and iPad. 

Andy Wong/AP/File
A customer configures the fingerprint scanner technology built into iPhone 5s at an Apple store in Wangfujing shopping district in Beijing.

In the wake of inspections on the health and safety conditions of 22 Apple facilities around the world, the consumer electronics company announced Wednesday it would stop using two chemicals in the final assembly of the iPhone and iPad that are potentially hazardous to the workers who make the products. 

Earlier this year, the activist groups China Labor Watch and Green America launched a petition drive to call on Apple to halt its use of the chemicals benzene and n-hexane. These chemicals, also found in substances such as paint strippers, gasoline, and detergents, are considered to be toxic. Benzene is believed to cause cancer and n-hexane has been linked to nerve damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Over the course of four months, Apple investigated 22 of its factories around the world – many of which are run by third parties under contract with Apple – in locations including China, Brazil, Ireland, Texas, and California. Apple did not find traces of the chemicals that could pose harmful to employees in the factories, which employ around 500,000 employees in all. In 18 of the factories, no traces of the chemical were found at all, while four of the factories found amounts that were deemed "within acceptable safety levels" for workers, according to The Associated Press, citing Apple. 

"Apple treats any allegations of unsafe working conditions extremely seriously," says Lisa Jackson, Apple's vice president for environmental initiatives, in a statement. "We took immediate investigative action, sending specialized teams into each of our 22 final assembly facilities, and found no evidence of workers’ health being put at risk."

Even so, Apple has decided it will no longer use these chemicals in the final assembly of its products, which also include Mac computers, iPods, and other Apple accessories, although it will continue to use them in the early stage of product production. But Apple will require its factories to test substances being used to minimize the chance of them containing traces of either chemical. 

"This is doing everything we can think of to do to crack down on chemical exposures and to be responsive to concerns," Ms. Jackson told the AP. "We think it's really important that we show some leadership and really look toward the future by trying to use greener chemistries." Jackson added in her statement that Apple is assembling a new advisory board to "minimize or eliminate toxins" from the company's products and supply chain. 

Apple in the past has faced scrutiny for harsh labor conditions at its factories. Two years ago, about 150 Chinese workers at Foxconn, which manufactures electronics for companies that include Apple, Nintendo, and Sony, threatened to commit suicide unless their working conditions were improved. 

Earlier this year in its eighth annual internal audit, Apple uncovered human rights violations that were occurring at various levels of its supply chain. These included abuses of migrant laborers and the use of underage workers, according to Bloomberg, noting that Apple said it was attempting to improve work conditions at its factories as well as remove the use of conflict minerals in its supply chain. 

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