Apple has been under fire recently for the way its workers are being treated but activist groups are singing a different tune after the company decided to ban the use of two toxic chemicals in its assembly factories.
Green America and China Labor Watch had been pressuring Apple since March to stop using benzene and n-hexane in the final assembly stage of iPhones, iPads, Macs and iPods because the chemicals pose health risks to factory workers. In response, Apple investigated its 22 factories and found out that 18 of those don't use the chemicals and the remaining four factories are operating within acceptable safety limits.
Still, Apple opted to ban the use of benzene and n-hexane altogether in its factories but only for the final stage of assembly. The two chemicals will still be used in earlier production stages but as a precaution, the company is lowering maximum limits for using benzene and n-hexane throughout.
"This is doing everything we can think of to do to crack down on chemical exposures and to be responsive to concerns. We think it's really important that we show some leadership and really look toward the future by trying to use greener chemistries," said Apple's Vice President of Environmental Initiatives Lisa Jackson in an interview.
Green America's campaign director Elizabeth O'Connell adds that this is a good first step and hopes that Apple "will continue to remove the most dangerous chemicals to human health or find ways to reduce the exposure."
Benzene is carcinogenic while n-hexane has been linked to cases of nerve damage. In its 2011 Supplier Responsibility report, Apple disclosed that 137 workers exposed to n-hexane were hospitalized, with a number of them threatening to file lawsuits for long-term illness brought about by exposure to the chemical.
Despite the warning tags, benzene is still an integral part of producing nylon and polystyrene materials in other industries. N-hexene, on the other hand, is a favored cleaning agent because it dries faster compared to alcohol.
Apple is not the only one using benzene and n-hexane in electronics but environmental groups are hoping the company's initiative will push other manufacturers to follow suit. Greenpeace's senior information technology analyst Gary Cook considers this move by Apple as promising because it has the potential to influence the implementation of greener practices in production.
The first Apple product to benefit from this ban will be the iPhone 6.