03/12/2014 02:39 pm ET Updated May 12, 2014

You Won't Believe What's in Your Cell Phone


I spent much of last year living in Shenzhen, China making a film about a little-known, but dangerous poison found in the manufacture of cell phones and their accessories: benzene.

Through my work on labor issues I had seen a number of factory workers who had been injured or been struck by illness unexpectedly. But before I began researching this film on China I had never heard of the extent of benzene's use in American brands' supply chains. Once I arrived though it was difficult to ignore. There were signs of benzene poisoning at all the factories I visited.

Ming Kunpeng was a worker I met in my travels who was diagnosed with occupational benzene poisoning, which means that doctors determined his condition was caused by working closely with the poison. Ming worked for a semiconductor company that produces the chips in most of our electronic products. These chips are hidden so deeply within the supply chain, and are made by companies we have never even heard of, which is why they are so hard to track down.

Even when electronic companies think their supply chains are clean the lack of transparency in factories in China can make it difficult to know for sure.

Six months after I met Ming he committed suicide. It was December 29th and I still remember every moment of that day. He had struggled for three years with repercussions from his benzene poisoning and an unsuccessful bone marrow transplant; and suffered from depression as a result. He was the eldest of two sons, his family abandoned their lives in Hubei Province to come take care of him in Shenzhen when he became sick. Even when he was deathly ill, his parents still had to fight the factory to give him an occupational diagnosis and the correct paperwork to show the benzene poisoning was the responsibility of the factory.

For months the factory gave him the run around, saying Ming did not have a claim and his cancer wasn't caused by the chemicals he used. Ming finally received the paperwork he had fought for but it was too late.

Unfortunately, Ming's story is not unusual. I have interviewed many teenagers who spent up to two years in hospitals because their factories didn't give them protective equipment or any training. Their supervisors blame the victims by saying they were given proper training, but they chose not to wear gloves, masks, or goggles. The supervisors smile and say they can't force workers to protect their health, but they manage to police the production of every gadget down to the tiniest detail.

The young workers have internalized this mistreatment. Even the sick ones often refuse to go home when they find out they are poisoned because they think they will be made fun of or told they were stupid for getting poisoned.

Benzene poisoning is not the fault of any one global electronic brand. It is the human cost of electronic sweatshops where profit is prioritized above safety.

There are less hazardous chemicals than benzene. But benzene continues to be used because it is the cheapest. Some experts caution if major electronics brands force their suppliers to stop using benzene, they will just substitute it with another chemical that is equally as risky.

Nonetheless I believe we should push for a healthier, more just world.

I am not alone. A Ban Benzene campaign was launched in 2013 by non-governmental organizations in Hong Kong trying to help thousands of workers in China. Other groups are pushing for an end to the impunity of factories there.

This is an industry-wide problem that will clean itself up faster when all major brands band together and combine resources to put pressure on suppliers.

I spent two days recently interviewing customers at a shopping mall in Ohio. Many had heard of the dangers of cellphone usage both to their own health and to the health of those making our cell phones over in China. All agreed the problem needed to be fixed.

This is not an issue unique to electronics. There are deplorable working conditions in the toy industry. The shoe industry is rife with dangerous chemicals. Worker advocates in China are convinced there is a risk not only to those working to make these products but also for consumers using these products daily.

Benzene poisoning is just the tip of the iceberg. Suicides, depression, and worker injuries are commonplace.

So the next time you pick up your cell phone just remember: there is a human cost to your conversation.


Heather White is an award-winning social entrepreneur with 25 years experience in international advocacy on labor and human rights issues.

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