Apple Could Face Lawsuit Over 'Toxic' iPhone Report

Consumer group claims iPhone should come with warning label.

ByAshley Phillips
February 11, 2009, 6:36 PM

Oct. 16, 2007 — -- A consumer watchdog group is considering a lawsuit against Apple, after the release of a Greenpeace report that alleges the company's iPhone contains toxic chemicals, though some critics have labeled the study a publicity stunt.

According to the conservation group's report, scientists at Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the U.K.'s University of Exeter who dismantled the phone and tested 18 of its components found brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Greenpeace claims BFRs can release toxic chemicals when recycled, and products with PVC have come under fire in the past few years for potentially leaking harmful chemicals.

The report acknowledged, however, that the levels of both substances found in the phone were in accordance with U.S. and European government regulations.

In response to the Greenpeace report, the California-based Center for Environmental Health filed a notice of intent to file a lawsuit Monday, according to a spokesman for the center.

A 60-day notice is required before filing a lawsuit in California. The organization believes using the iPhone could leave consumers at risk to several harmful PVC byproducts and plans to do its own research during the next 60 days.

"We'd like Apple to reformulate the product to eliminate or reduce toxic chemicals," communications director Charles Margulis told

In its defense, Apple responded to the report by reiterating its original "green Apple" statement, pointing out that the levels of chemicals in its products adhere to government standards.

Future editions of the iPhone are unlikely to contain the substances in question after a May announcement by Apple that it would manufacture products without BFRs and PVC by the end of 2008.

"Like all Apple products worldwide, iPhone complies with ROHS [Restriction of Hazardous Substances], the world's toughest restrictions on toxic substances in electronics," Apple spokesman Steve Dowling told "As we have said, Apple will voluntarily eliminate the use of PVC and brominated flame retardants by the end of 2008."

Dowling refused to comment on the potential lawsuit.

Apple products are not the worst offenders on Greenpeace's report card of electronics companies and some critics of the latest report suggest that the publicity surrounding the massively hyped iPhone has made the company a target.

California's Proposition 65 specifies that products sold containing potentially harmful chemicals must have a warning label, a stipulation that the Center for Environmental Health hopes to drive home.

"Under the Proposition 65 law, the product can't be legally sold without a warning notice," Margulis said.

Industrywide, manufacturers seem to be making a move toward ridding electronics of these chemicals, according to Greenpeace's report. Nokia's phones are PVC-free, while Motorola and Sony Ericsson have released products with BFR-free components.

Since 2006, the environmental organization has maintained a report card of how electronics companies fare in their environmental policies, grading them on everything from recycling programs to chemical levels in their products.

In the latest version, Apple scored a 5.3 on a 10-point scale, far behind leader Nokia, which scored the highest with an 8. But Apple isn't the only offender, according to Greenpeace's assessments. HP scored the same as Apple, while Panasonic ranked the worst with a 5.

"The good news for the industry is that every company is scoring a 5 or better," said Rick Hind, the legislative director of Greenpeace's toxic campaign. "But no one is scoring a 9 or 10 yet. … It's a race to the top."

Some critics, however, dismissed the report as a PR stunt.

"I'm kind of in the 'this is a publicity stunt from Greenpeace' corner," Michael Gartenberg, the vice president and research director of Jupiter Research, told "Apple's a very good target for them because of [its] popularity in the marketplace. … It happens when you are as successful as they are. [Apple] becomes this sort of marketing vehicle for other people to use for publicity purposes."

According to Gartenberg, Apple has a history of "paying attention to environmental issues."

"It's a company that now has Nobel laureate Al Gore on its board."

Gartenberg doesn't believe that Apple's sales will be affected by the report. "I think most people will see it for what it is," he said. "Sales won't be hurt at all."

Hind dismisses arguments that Greenpeace is singling out Apple. He says the organization examined the iPhone for two reasons: because of Jobs' announcement in May and because the company is a leader in its field.

"Apple is known for its innovation. So we're hoping it will continue to be a trailblazer for these and all these other environmental policies," Hind said. "In May, Apple made a commitment to phase out these chemicals in 2008. … [We're] hoping this will help the company to motivate a faster schedule for these changes. If they're going to do it by 2008, they've got to start somewhere."

Hind says he believes that it's not enough for Apple to comply with the ROHS standards.

"Other companies are surpassing Apple," he said. "Whenever a company says they're complying with the law that's like pulling over a driver and saying I only had two beers. Well we'd like them to be doing it without any beers. … Their competitors are doing it without these chemicals."

The Center for Environmental Health says it shares similar goals with Greenpeace: to speed up the process of the removal of the chemicals.

"We always go into these cases with … the goal of company reform, and we always almost achieve that goal," Margulis said. "[Apple] made a commitment to be PVC-free by the end of 2008. Hopefully, with our legal work, we can maybe speed up that time frame."

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