Touch screen production proves toxic

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JEB SHARP: I'm Jeb Sharp and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. Our lives today depend so much on high tech gadgets that we seldom give their manufacturing much thought. When we do dig a little deeper, the findings can be disturbing. Kathleen McLaughlin is a reporter with Global Post dot com. She's based in China and she investigated a factor there owned by a Taiwanese company named Wintek. The factor makes touch screens for smart phones. Dozens of workers at this factor became ill from exposure to a toxic solvent that violated local codes and was used without proper safety equipment. Kathleen, what happened to the workers who used this solvent, N-Hexane?

KATHLEEN MCLAUGHLIN: Well Jeb, the workers, after a few months of working with N-Hexane started to develop really strange symptoms. They were getting light headed, people were fainting on the factory lines and then their hands and feet started to numb. Over the course of several weeks they began to have trouble walking. They started having trouble using their hands at all. A couple of the workers said they thought they were just tired from working 12 hours shifts seven days a week. But what was happening was inhaling the hexane chemical was actually destroying their peripheral nerves. Sixty-two workers, the company has now confirmed, have peripheral neuropathy, nerve damage, in basically their arms and legs. If it isn't treated, and they weren't removed from the toxic exposure, they could have been paralyzed. They are recovering now, but it has been eight months since most of them went to the hospital, so it's a pretty extreme case of worker abuse, particularly since the company didn't have approval to use the chemical in the factor.

SHARP: Why was the factory using the chemical in the first place? What's it for?

MCLAUGHLIN: It's a solvent, to it's used to clean the touch screens in the production process. Now normally the factory was using regular alcohol, which is a kind of standard low risk chemical, right? Hexane dries much more quickly than alcohol and so each worker, they told me, they were expected to clean 1,000 touch screens per day, per worker. So you can imagine that just a couple of seconds saved by a more quickly drying chemical is going to shave a lot of time off the production process. So the company believed, and the company has said this, that managers believed that they could make the process more efficient by using this chemical rather than alcohol.

SHARP: Have there been consequences for the factory for using this practice, for using this chemical?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well they were sanctioned by the local government and Wintek in Taiwan; the corporate office is in Taiwan, has fired the local factory manager. As far as I know, there haven't been sanctions from the companies that buy the products from Wintek. Apple hasn't responded to any of this.

SHARP: So they were supplying, is this specifically for iPhones?

MCLAUGHLIN: According to all the workers I interviewed, they were making touch screens for iPhones and iTouch products, those two products. What they say, and these were all independently verified through different interviews and of course, I can't say for sure because Apple won't confirm anything. But that the hexane was used on the second floor of the factory. The second floor of the factory was a workshop exclusively for Apple touch screens, specifically the iPhone and the iTouch. Because Apple won't comment on any of this, we don't know if there have been any repercussions from them related to the factory. Now Nokia, which also buys products from Wintek and uses this factory to make some of its products, has said it did an independent investigation and hexane was not used on its products.

SHARP: Presumably there are iPhones out there that were made in this factory. If I wanted to find out where the components of my iPhone came from, could I do that?

MCLAUGHLIN: I don't think you could. The supply chain is fractured. There are no clear lines. So, for example, let's take an iPhone, the screen might be made by one company in - -, the inside of the phone might be made by a completely different company in southern China, the assembly of the phone might take place in a third factory. So because the supply chain is so split up into these different parts, it's impossible to place responsibility with the company that's ordering the gadgets. They can always say well this was the fault of the supplier factory; we don't have responsibility for this. There just seems to be an overall lack of responsibility with the companies that are selling these products and making the profit off of them.

SHARP: Kathleen McLaughlin has been reporting on supply chains for our favorite electronic gadgets for Global Post. Thanks so much Kathleen.

MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you very much.