Apple is banning the use of two toxic chemicals from final assembly processes for its products, after watchdog groups demanded the company replace the substances with safer alternatives.
Earlier this year, Green America and China Labor Watch had called on Apple to eliminate the use of benzene and n-hexane from its supply chain. Both substances are known to be poisonous, but are still in use at Chinese factories, including those that build Apple products, the groups claimed.
On Thursday, Apple said it investigated 22 of its final assembly facilities and found "no widespread use of benzene or n-hexane, and no evidence of worker health and safety being put at risk," according to an online report. The investigation covered facilities that employ close to 500,000 workers.
The two chemicals, however, were still found at four of the facilities, but in low concentrations that complied with Apple's safety regulations. Following the investigation, Apple concluded that safer alternatives to benzene and n-hexane exist, and so decided to ban their use as cleaning agents in the final assembly process. The change takes effect on Sept. 1.
On Thursday, Apple for the first time released a list of substances it regulates at its suppliers.
In June, Green America along with dozens of other groups sent a letter to Apple, demanding the company be more transparent in the chemicals used at its manufacturers. The groups also asked the company to create a fund to help treat factory workers, who've become ill or injured for making Apple products. Two months before, both Green America and China Labor Watch staged a related protest outside an Apple store in New York.
The U.S. tech giant has been facing persistent scrutiny over its manufacturing processes, after a string of worker suicides in 2010 at factories run by its supplier Foxconn Technology Group. Apple has been working to improve labor conditions throughout its supply chain, but some watchdog groups have said more work needs to be done, including raising workers' pay and better oversight over the factory conditions.
"The key is whether Apple can keep its promise," said Li Qiang, executive director for China Labor Watch, in a Thursday email. "Currently, Apple's auditing cannot fully uncover all the problems. Its effectiveness still has issues."
Both benzene and n-hexane are still permitted for use by Apple suppliers, but before the final assembly process and under set restrictions. The chemicals can be found as common ingredients in paint strippers, glue and household cleaners.
Previously in 2009, 137 workers at an Apple supplier in China were exposed to n-hexane. Two years later, some workers complained that their health had worsened, and wanted Apple to help pay for treatment.