Apple’s Ugly Side

There’s endless enthusiasm for Apple’s touch screen products, from the iPad to the iPhone—but little thought for the health consequences to the Chinese workers who make them. Those consequences can include debilitating nerve damage in the feet, legs, hands and arms of workers. Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups pushing for better control of toxins and defense of workers’ health are raising awareness. Reuters reported last week that between May 2008 and August 3009 workers making touch screens for Apple products in east China’s Suzhou industrial park were using a dangerous chemical called hexyl hydride or n-Hexane. Use of the chemical allowed the factory to speed up production—but left at least 137 workers ill either from inhaling n-Hexane or absorbing it through their skin.

A letter reportedly sent to Apple CEO Steve Jobs from five Chinese workers—a letter also sent to Reuters—stated that “From when hexyl hydride was used, monthly profits at Apple and Wintek [the Taiwanese company that owns the Chinese factory in question] have gone up by tens of millions every month, the accumulated outcome of workers’ lives and health.” Employee complaints included numb hands and swollen feet as well as fatigue and faintness. Nerve damage left workers hospitalized for eight months to recover from the poisoning.

Although the chemical allowed for faster production, the company Wintek has since switched back to using alcohol. But those who complained were reportedly pressured to give up their jobs if they accepted compensation; or led to believe that they would not receive compensation should they fall ill in the future. The incident is the latest in a series of troubling reports from Chinese factories that make Apple products. Last year it was revealed that conditions were so horrible at the major Apple supplier Foxconn Technology—where employees fused electronic parts by timed stopwatch in warehouses filled with fumes and dust—that more than a dozen workers reportedly committed suicide as a result.