Newer smartphones have fewer toxic chemicals, teardown finds

Underneath the shiny exterior of smartphones such as the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S III lurks a collection of toxic chemicals that can be hazardous to the environment and your health. Toxic chemicals such as bromine, mercury and lead are all a part of many smartphones you've bought in the last five years. It's unclear what the health risks are from these toxic chemicals while you're actively using the device. But if your smartphone ends up in a landfill or incinerator instead of being disassembled responsibly, all those toxic chemicals can end up in the water you drink or the air you breathe.

But which smartphones are the worst offenders for using toxic chemicals? This information is often hard, if not impossible, to find. But recently, the teardown kings at iFixit teamed up with HealthyStuff.org, a group that advocates environmentally sound manufacturing practices, to figure out just how toxic our smartphones are.

Chart courtesy of iFixit/Healthystuff.org; the iPhone 2G in the above graphic refers to the original iPhone. The term '2G' is meant to reflect the cellular network technology used in Apple's first smartphone.

Where's your gadget on the toxic teardown scale?

The toxic teardown took a look at 36 different smartphones and feature phones released in the last five years from phone makers such as Apple, Hewlett-Packard, HTC, LG Electronics, Motorola, Nokia, Palm, Research in Motion and Samsung. Each phone was taken apart and analyzed for 35 different chemicals and then scored on a scale of 0 to 5, with 5 being the most concerning levels of toxic chemicals and 0 the least.

Interestingly, Apple was responsible for one of the most and least toxic smartphones in the study. The original iPhone got 5 points, while the iPhone 5 and iPhone 4S both scored less than 2.8. Apple rival Samsung similarly had phones across the toxic spectrum with the old Java-based Samsung SCH-U410 scoring 4.18, while the more recent Galaxy S III earned a respectable 2.99. The iPhone 5 and Galaxy SIII both lost points for their levels of bromine, chlorine, lead, and mercury.

“Companies are actually taking pretty significant action to try to begin to address these issues [of using fewer toxic chemicals],” Jeff Gearhart, founder and research director of HealthyStuffy.org, told PCWorld. “I think this will lead to healthier and better products.”

But we're not there yet. While strides have been made to produce mercury-free LCD displays, arsenic-free glass, and chlorine-free printed circuit board laminates, technology companies still rely on problematic materials to make the latest and greatest smartphones.

“The industry is on a journey towards more sustainable mobile phones,” Gearhart says. “The challenge to the industry is how do we design products with safer chemistries that give [gadgets] the same functionalities.”

The old phone dilemma

While phone makers are getting better at producing phones with fewer toxic chemicals, older phones headed for the trash bin often have higher amounts of toxic substances. If these older, more toxic phones are not disposed of correctly, all those dangerous substances can end up in the air or leeching into ground water, an important water source for drinking, watering crops, and even doing the laundry. The Environmental Protection Agency says that more than half of the U.S. population's drinking water comes from ground water sources.

Besides being bad for the environment, these chemicals have also been linked to serious health concerns. Bromine, chlorine, lead and mercury, for example, are all materials that contribute to dioxin formation, says Gearhart. Dioxins are highly toxic substances that can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, and even contribute to cancer, according to the World Health Organization.

What you can do

The reality is no one is going to stop using smartphones just because of the toxic chemicals encased inside, but what should you do to keep yourself and your family as safe as possible? First, don't keep old smartphones lying around the house and don't give them away as toys for children. Instead, take your old gadgets to an electronics recycling depot where the contents of the phone can be recovered for reuse in newer products. This not only keeps harmful substances out of the atmosphere, but reduces the need to mine for more materials as well. Recyclers recover more than 100 million pounds of materials from electronics each year in the U.S., according to the EPA.

The problem, however, is that not all e-recyclers are created equally. Some of the less ethical recyclers ship your old gadgets offshore to China or countries in Africa where they are either dumped in a trash pile or the device's materials are recovered using unsafe practices that endanger foreign workers and communities, including small children.

To ensure your gadget gets recycled responsibly check out the Basel Action Network's e-stewards.org, a site that lists North American recyclers that have pledged to dispose of electronics responsibly and to not let hazardous materials end up in landfills overseas. Most major U.S. mobile phone carriers and big box retailers such as Best Buy also have electronics recycling programs that pledge responsible disposal and reuse.

[RELATED: Recycle Your Gear to Help Combat Global E-Waste]

In 2009, the EPA said Americans discarded 129 million mobile devices, but only 11.7 million of them ended up being recycled. That means a lot of toxic substances could be sitting in landfills or processed through incinerators near you. So the next time you need to chuck your old cellphone, think twice about throwing it in the trash and find a responsible electronics recycler instead.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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