Apple, Samsung Called on to Stop Use of Deadly Chemicals in Factories

NEWS ANALYSIS: Smartphones need to ditch carcinogens. Could being the change-maker be the best marketing for companies desperate for distinction?

Consumer health and fitness features are expected to be a new area of focus for Samsung and Apple, as each works to find a foothold it can use to advance itself past the other. But it's the health of the workers producing the components for these rivals' devices that's begun to gain some attention.

Samsung recently shuffled around six of the seven executives in its Future Strategies office, the Korea Times reported April 30, citing an executive who said the moves would help Samsung better address key issues. These include, said the report, securing parts suppliers for the Galaxy S5 and addressing the "stalled negotiations with leukemia-stricken former employees."

According to multiple reports, workers at Samsung and Apple factories are coming down with aggressive forms of leukemia, due to chemicals they're exposed to on the job.

Bloomberg Business, in an April 10 report, told the story of two young women who got jobs in a Samsung factory in South Korea "dipping computer chips into the same vat of chemicals." Neither had any family history of the illness; both died of acute myeloid leukemia.

Instead of making gestures of compensation to the families, said the report, Samsung was "hostile" and denied any connection between the girls' illnesses and their work.

In a new documentary, "Who Pays the Price? The Human Cost of Electronics," filmmakers Heather White and Lynn Zhang tell the stories of young workers in China's electronics factories who have "occupational leukemia" caused by benzene poisoning. They make smartphones for a number of companies.

"Benzene is a category 1 carcinogen that is banned in most Western countries for industrial use," says the film. But in China, where more than 50 percent of the world's smartphones are made, it's legal.

"This should be the best time of his life," says a father about his 26-year-old son, a leukemia patient who's shown in the film in a stark room, taking his medication.

"When I was in the hospital, I couldn't walk. But I didn't dare tell my mother," says a nicely dressed young woman, sobbing in front of the camera. She was poisoned by N-Hexane. "I had expected that I would be responsible, that I would try to relieve some of the burden from my parents [by taking a job at a factory]. But the truth is, I ended up as their burden."

In March, Green America, a nonprofit that uses "economic power" to create "a just and environmentally sustainable society," launched the petition Bad Apple, calling on the iPhone maker to replace the "most dangerous, toxic chemicals" in its suppliers' factories with "safer alternatives."

Green America leaves no smartphone maker exempt—it provides 800-numbers consumers can call to voice their concerns to Samsung, LG, Sony, BlackBerry and LG—but it calls Apple a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) leader.

"Apple has led the way in reducing its carbon footprint and shifting to renewable energy at its data center and headquarters. Apple was also the first smartphone manufacturer to eliminate the use of tantalum from conflict regions in its products," Green America said in a March 31 blog post. "Because Apple has taken these steps, we know that with enough consumer pressure Apple will also lead in protecting the workers in its supply chain from dangerous chemicals."

In a statement to the press, Apple has said that it led the industry in removing toxics like mercury from products, that it requires its suppliers around the world to "meet or exceed respected US safety standards," and that last year it conducted nearly 200 factory inspections that focused on hazardous chemicals.

Apple used Earth Day to shine a light on its pro-environment initiatives, and even arguably to establish a new, "greener" mission statement under CEO Tim Cook. It's using fewer and more recyclable materials, and it built a data center that runs entirely on "clean sources," like wind and solar energy.

Could enforcing a ban on dangerous chemicals, no matter where in the world products are made, provide Apple—or Samsung, or any smartphone maker with the power to change the supply change—with the surest, most advancing foothold in a fiercely competitive market? Could being the "good guy" be the best possible marketing?