iPhone Sausage Making

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As a technophile, I do love my iPhone and iPod as portable portals to new media, the web and entertainment. But everything comes at a price. I was reminded of this, starkly, by a brilliant commentary by Mike Daisy, featured recently on NPR’s This American Life. That sausage may be delicious, but few of us want to be reminded of how it came to be. So it goes for iPhones, even for something as mundane as to how their screens are cleaned in the factory.

From This American Life broadcast, “Mr. Daisy and The Apple Factory:”

Mike Daisey performs an excerpt that was adapted for radio from his one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” A lifelong Apple superfan, Daisey sees some photos online from the inside of a factory that makes iPhones, starts to wonder about the people working there, and flies to China to meet them. His show restarts a run at New York’s Public Theater later this month.

Transcript from This American Life

Some of them [the workers] are in groups. There’s a group that’s talking about hexane. N-hexane is an I-phone screen cleaner. It’s great because it evaporates a little bit faster than alcohol does, which means you can run the production line even faster and try to keep up with the quotas. The problem is that n-hexane is a potent neurotoxin and all these people have been exposed. Their hands shake uncontrollably. Most of them can’t even pick up a glass.

I talk to people whose joints in their hands have disintegrated from working on the line, doing the same motion hundreds and hundreds of thousands of times. It’s like carparpel tunnel on a scale that we can scarcely imagine. You need to know that this is imminently avoidable. If these people were rotated, monthly, on their jobs this would not happen. But, that would require someone to care. That would require someone at Foxconn and the other suppliers to care. That would require someone at Apple and Dell and the other customers to care. Currently, no one in the ecosystem cares enough to even enforce that. And so, when you start working at 15 or 16, by the time you are 26, 27… your hands are ruined. And when they are truly ruined, once they will not do anything further, you know what we do with a defective part in a machine that makes machines. We throw it away….

Is hexane really a neurotoxin? According to the Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) guidelines for this chemical: {my emphasis}

Certainly the chemical safety standards in China differ from OSHA in the US.

n-Hexane is a narcotic agent; an irritant to the eyes, upper respiratory tract, and skin; and a neurotoxin. Exposure of humans to 5,000 ppm n-hexane for 10 minutes causes marked vertigo; exposure to 1,500 ppm results in headache and slight nausea [Hathaway et al. 1991; Clayton and Clayton 1982]. In industrial settings, exposure to levels exceeding 1,000 ppm have been reported to cause mild symptoms of narcosis [Hathaway et al. 1991]. Eye and upper respiratory tract irritation has been reported to occur in humans exposed to 880 ppm n-hexane for 15 minutes [Clayton and Clayton 1982]. Dermal contact with n-hexane results in immediate irritation characterized by erythema and hyperemia; exposed subjects developed blisters 5 hours following dermal exposure to n-hexane [Hathaway et al. 1991]. The neuropathic toxicity of n-n-hexane in humans is well documented; cases of polyneuropathy have typically occurred in humans chronically exposed to levels of n-hexane ranging from 400 to 600 ppm, with occasional exposures up to 2,500 ppm [Hathaway et al. 1991]. Distal symmetrical motor weakness is common in most cases; however, in severely affected individuals, motor weakness may extend to the pelvic and high musculature [Rom 1992]. Nerve biopsies in affected individuals show swelling of the nerve and thinning of the myelin sheath. Functional neurological disturbances usually progress for a few months after termination of exposure. Although recovery is expected to occur within a year, clinical polyneuropathy has been reported in some cases to remain after 2 years [Hathaway et al. 1991]. Blurred vision, restricted visual field, and optic nerve atrophy has been reported to occur in association with n-hexane-induced polyneuropathy. Twelve of 15 individuals working with hexane for 12 years were found to have abnormal color discrimination [Grant 1986].

According to an article in the journal Archives of Toxicology, n-hexane causes “symmetrical, predominantly distal motor deficit and lesions of the ascending tract.”

Comments

  1. #1 Maurice Balick
    January 11, 2012

    Agreed. Will not replace my iPhone with another Apple product until they cleanup their act. ($300M+ bonus for Tim Cook should give us an idea of the size of the task at hand.)

    Is there another brand that’s more acceptable? Or am I stuck with my old 3GS for years to come?

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    May 23, 2012

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    USA
    July 29, 2012

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