The Unspin Room | Dalton Delan : A toxic cellphone stew

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WESTPORT, Conn. — Enough about software; let's talk hardware. Is Sen. John McCain's glioblastoma, like the one that took Ted Kennedy's life in 2009, related in any way to the use of his cellphone? Is the mobile phone, the motherlode of media usage today, carried by 95 percent of Americans, as environmentally friendly as consumers would like to believe? It's small, svelte and isn't apparently shunned by vegans or eco-warriors among us.

Let's consider its local effects and those across our fragile planet. On the matter of elecromagnetic radiation, studies are inconclusive and ongoing. Last year, the National Toxicology Program of the NIH found that cellphone radiation increased the incidence of gliomas in male rats. Maybe you think you're not in the rat race. But in 2011, a Working Group of the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer classified cellphone use as "possibly carcinogenic to humans." The jury is out, but this isn't like the anti-vaccine lobby. Children are, in fact, more prone to radiation injury. To be on the safe side, scientists say, keep your phone away from head and body as much as possible.

Not in doubt, however, is the cellphone's farm-to-table toxicity. From the day its minerals are dug to the night children scavenge Third World dumps for used circuitry, the cellphone is a Frankenstein. Child and slave labor in war-torn Congo brings us much of the cobalt, tungsten, tin and tantalum that goes into your iPhone or Android. Like so-called blood diamonds, we should probably refer to blood cobalt. And much of our tin, needed to solder circuit boards, comes from Bolivia, where average life expectancy for miners is 40 years.

On the tail end, the majority of our e-waste is exported to countries such as Vietnam, China, the Philippines, India and Pakistan, where environmental and human health safeguards are few. If birth defects and impaired learning affect those exposed, there is no one with a reporter's notebook nearby.

A 2004 study found that three-fourths of cellphones leach lead at a level that qualifies them as hazardous waste. When it came out in 2007, the iPhone 2G was so poisonous that Greenpeace warned against its environmental impact. An Apple a day won't keep the doctor away.

A rare-earth mess

Cellphone manufacturers hide their secret sauce like Coca-Cola's formula. But in a 2012 investigation, the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor subjected 36 mobile phones to X-ray fluorescence spectrometry. In every single case, the study revealed mercury, lead, cadmium, bromine and chlorine. While these may not crawl onto your hand or into your ear, if they aren't disposed of properly — away from groundwater, soil and growing bodies — your phone can deliver one bad connection indeed.

I'm actually treading lightly here. I've failed to mention another two-dozen elements, and lest we neglect them, rare-earth minerals such as yttrium and cerium. Rare-earth mineral extraction has left a toxic lake in inner Mongolia that would make a Superfund site seem like a walk in the park. And in Shenzen, China, where iPhones are assembled, I know of no outsiders privy to their safety protocols.

Early land-line telephones — communications devices no smarter than the conversations of their holders — were made of the first synthetic plastic, Bakelite, in addition to carbon granule transmitters, electromagnetic receivers, transformers, ringers and a few other odds and ends. Wood flour or asbestos fiber went into Bakelite's composition. If your hand's friction warmed up the molded plastic receiver, you might catch the sickly-sweet odor of formaldehyde — not today's cellphone stew, but not the nicest of chemicals in the household either.

Some of my friends who read the newspaper on iPads and iPhones may take solace in saving paper, and perhaps that is true, though wood is a renewable resource when properly controlled. But when they motor down the HOV lane in their Prius or Tesla, I suspect in the glow of their combustion-free quietude they are unaware of the carbon dioxide creation and environmental impact of the mining and manufacture of the lithium-ion batteries inside — greater than the impact of building comparable internal-combustion automobiles. Similarly, we don't give a second thought to the price the planet pays for our handheld hardware.

British essayist Charles Lamb wrote in 1830: "There is a march of science; but who shall beat the drums for its retreat." No one, I suspect. Ubiquitous pocket media is the common currency of our age, its oxygen. If we have to journey to the center of the Earth to extract the essential minerals, dig we must.

But let us pause in our texting and tweeting to consider the Wizard behind the curtain. Should not Apple, Samsung and all the others who make the magic show us their cards? As the toll is taken in Africa, Asia and South America, our shining city on a hill loses elevation with every shovel.

Dalton Delan has won Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia awards for his work as a television producer.


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