iPhones Don’t Just Hurt Your Wallet

Issue 7, Volume 112

By Olivia Zheng 

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Electronic devices are the second most-purchased item during Black Friday each year. Mobile phones, in particular, are pretty temporary, or at least they are for over half of American iPhone users. When we succeed in saving up for the newest iPhone model or convincing our parents to fork out several hundred dollars to purchase it for us, the production of the phone is the last thing on our minds. Opening the clean, matte box to a glossy, brand new iPhone, it’s impossible to imagine miners digging in precipitous conditions to build the device. For most people, especially students, phones are necessary for navigating modern, urban life. Thus, the hidden consequences of mobile phone production go unaddressed.

The production of iPhones and other electronic devices drives the demand for cobalt. Cobalt is used in lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles, certain mobile phones, like iPhones, and other technology. These batteries are viewed as a sustainable alternative to lead-acid batteries because of their higher energy density. However, the cobalt used in lithium-ion batteries isn’t so green to the Congolese people, who witness the horrific impacts of mining firsthand. Over 70 percent of the world’s cobalt is sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which heavily uses child labor and unethical labor practices. There, both those working in mines and living in surrounding villages suffer.

20 percent of the cobalt in the DRC is mined by hand, often by miners who are not provided with personal protection equipment. Besides the dangers associated with climbing deep into underground mines, there are also health risks from cobalt exposure. Breathing in cobalt dust leads to a respiratory condition called hard-metal pneumoconiosis, also known as “cobalt lung,” that causes lung issue inflammation and scarring. This puts miners at a higher risk of developing respiratory diseases, and the exposure of skin to cobalt particles also results in contact dermatitis, which causes red, itchy rashes.

The consequences are even more dire for children born in these environments. Regions where cobalt mining is rampant experience higher rates of birth defects like cleft palate, spina bifida, and other limb deformities. Children of fathers who mined and mothers who worked outside the home were more likely to have these birth defects. A cleft palate results from the incomplete fusion of the lip and palate during the first trimester of fetal development and causes difficulties with food ingestion, as well as dental and speech problems. The eustachian tube, which connects the nasopharynx to the middle ear, is also affected, causing fluid buildup in the ears that makes infections more likely. Spina bifida occurs when one or more gaps form between vertebrae in the spine, which can sometimes allow spinal nerves to push out of the spinal cavity and onto the exterior of the developing fetus’s back during early development. This neural tube defect varies in severity but can result in leg and spine complications that limit mobility, bowel and bladder dysfunction, hydrocephalus, and other complications.

Other ecological consequences include the pollution of waterways. This has destroyed crops in certain regions, forcing farmers to relocate. The acidity of the water caused by cobalt pollution also kills marine life, destroying the livelihoods of fishers.

The destruction that cobalt mining inflicts on human and environmental health is oftentimes far removed from us, but this issue should not be ignored. As more technology becomes electric, the demand for lithium-ion batteries, and thus cobalt, will only rise. Even if we are able to develop more sustainable batteries, we must also address the consumerist culture that normalizes the disposing of functional technology. During the release of Apple’s next iPhone model, see past the shiny exterior of the device and reconsider whether you really need a device whose novelty will soon wear off, but whose toll on human and environmental health will not.