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Smear or Slam? Greenpeace Bites Apple
Trevor Butterworth, April 6, 2007
Apple ranks bottom in new Greenpeace study of enviro-friendly computer companies: scientific exposé - or a shameless publicity stunt?

Greenpeace, the activist group that notoriously claimed vibrators and dildos were a major threat to adult health because they contained phthalates, has come out with another data-challenged report, this time accusing Apple of being un-Green.

The evidence appears to be that as Apple doesn’t reclaim its unwanted or out-of-date computers, and because computers are made with chemicals that can be toxic, it’s a disgrace.

The problem is that Greenpeace doesn’t seem to want to prove its case with actual epidemiological or toxicological data. It simple asserts that

“Right now, poison Apples full of chemicals (like toxic flame retardants, and polyvinyl chloride) are being sold worldwide. When they're tossed, they usually end up at the fingertips of children in China, India and other developing-world countries. They dismantle them for parts, and are exposed to a dangerous toxic cocktail that threatens their health and the environment.”

It requires a little more digging to find Apple’s actual scorecard, wherein one finds that Greenpeace don’t actually measure the amount of “toxic” chemicals in Apple’s products.

Instead, the organization relies on Apple’s labeling to determine which chemicals are present, and then cites the precautionary principle for the chemical’s toxicity. In other words, if a study has shown that a chemical causes some damage in rodents, the precautionary principle dictates that one must assume the chemical is a risk to humans, no matter what the quantity, or the likelihood of actual exposure, or the mode of action, or the weight of countervailing evidence.

If we applied the precautionary principle to the vegetables as Greenpeace does to computers, we’d have to ban tomatoes and lettuce, as the naturally-occurring caffeic acid is a carcinogen in rodents at high quantities.

Greenpeace employs the precautionary principle far more rigorously than the European Union because the group wants all brominated fire retardants banned. The EU, on the other hand, exempted deca -BDE – the most widely used flame-retardant in consumer products –from its Directive on Hazardous Substances after a 10-year risk assessment evaluated 588 studies and found the chemical posed no health risk.

It seems a tad unfair to judge Apple’s green-ness by a standard that no company is subjected to by regulation in the U.S. or Europe.

It is also not an exaggeration to say that Chinese and Indians have rather more substantial pollution problems than inhaling fire retardants from dumped computers if, in fact, they are inhaling them at levels that constitute a health risk – data anyone?

The fact that China’s coal industry is one of the biggest environmental monsters ever unleashed on the modern world gives Greenpeace’s campaign an Alice in Wonderland quality. As the New York Times reported, the sulfur dioxide alone from China’s 2000 odd coal driven power stations is responsible for 400,000 premature deaths per year. Meanwhile, India is emerging as an ozone hotspot.

And if you think the rest of the world isn’t affected by this daily spew of gaseous mercury, sulfur dioxide, and other poisonous particles, think again. Up to thirty percent of the mercury in American soil and water was inadvertently blown here from elsewhere.

As for PVC, Chinese industry workers are routinely exposed to vastly greater quantities of these chemicals than would be permissible in the West, and have, as a correlation, shown “modest but significant” decreases in blood testosterone levels according to a recent study in Environmental Health Perspectives. Even still, the connection between such exposures and actual harm has not been shown.

It’s easy to dismiss Greenpeace’s campaign as a cheap, self-serving publicity stunt, but it’s a stunt that has succeeded, if you look at the massive and largely uncritical media coverage. And none of the news reports critically examined the scientific basis for Greenpeace’s claims, the methodology of its ranking – or the ethics of accusing a company of being an environmental polluter without providing actual proof that there is real exposure and real harm. Apple deserves better – and so do we.

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