Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Just When You Thought It Was Safe With Your Hands-Free Headset...

by Alexandra Zissu
The Green Guide
September 29, 2008

I'm writing this column on a laptop. My daughter likes to yank on its power cord. Next to me sits my cell phone with its corded hands-free headset. Next to that rests a cord-ed baby monitor. A few feet away from me is the babe's 16-year-old cousin, bopping along to her iPod. Another cousin is playing some sort of game hooked up to the television: cords, cords and more cords.

The problem with all those cords isn't the mess they create but the fact that they're wrapped in polyvinyl chloride (PVC), an environmentally destructive plastic that often contains brain-damaging lead and hormone disrupting phthalates.

Several groups, including Greenpeace and the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), have tested and concluded that the headphone cords for certain electronic devices contain high levels of phthalates. Greenpeace has found a similar issue with certain game consoles.

But would I, or the iPod and video game addicts, give these things up just to cut back on potential lead and phthalate exposure? Probably not. I do try to, but it makes work difficult.

The good news is that companies are starting to (voluntarily) eliminate the worst chemicals from their electronics and wires. Apple, which was recently given kudos from Greenpeace for its greener Nano, has said it will rid its products of PVC (the source of the phthalates and often of lead, which is used to stabilize the flexible plastic) by the end of 2008. Apple also says it currently complies with an E.U. directive called RoHS ("restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment") and its tough guidelines on toxic substances in electronics; the RoHS guidelines require eliminating lead but not PVC. Though they aren't the standard issue iBuds that come with their pods and phones, Apple does already sell (volume reducing) PVC-free earphones called Ultimate Ears Loud Enough Earphones for Kids ($39.95; www.store.apple.com). These work for non-Apple items, too.

Where cell phones are concerned, Nokia got top billing in Greenpeace's most recent Greener Electronics Guide, partly for eliminating lead in all its products and for having produced PVC-free phones since 2005. And, the Greenpeace report notes that Sony Ericsson has banned lead, PVC and phthalates in all of its products (including hands-free headset wires).

But what if you don't want to buy new earbuds or a new phone for your techie teenager? Unfortunately warning labels are few and far between, and often buried in paper manuals most of us toss or lose post purchase. A few solid ideas:

* Do not allow children—or adults—to put earphones or cords in their mouths.

*Always wash hands after touching cords, especially before eating.

*Test cords with a Lead Check swab, which is said to work well for electronics.

*If you're willing, wrap earphone cords in something like fun-patterned or brightly colored wire reinforced ribbon. This goes over particularly well with teenage girls. Don't, however, wrap in electrical tape. It's also PVC.

* It might be worth switching computer cords you use most, and certainly those that test positive for lead. Call your computer's manufacturer to see if they offer lead-free cables. If not, check online stores that sell RoHS-compliant accessories, such as www.pcconnection.com.

© 2008 National Geographic Society

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