If you bought your phone through less-than-legitimate channels, beware: Fake phones are often full of lead. Why? Lead and tin have been used to solder components onto circuit boards since the 1940s. The European Union adopted regulations restricting lead, mercury, cadmium, and other hazardous substances in all imported electronic devices in 2003, so most brands have adapted to make their devices compliant. But some counterfeiters—and even legitimate brands—are still eschewing the safety restrictions.
Many legitimate electronic devices contain some trace amounts of lead, cadmium and mercury, but counterfeit and substandard phones—that is, mobile devices passed off as a particular brand, and ones made to mimic the style of well-known brands—have “alarmingly high proportions of hazardous substances,” according to a report released this week by the Mobile Manufacturers Forum (pdf). They’re also quite common: In 2011, 125 million substandard and counterfeit phones were sold worldwide, and last year 148 million units were sold, the report estimates. Projected global cellphone sales for 2013 were 1.86 billion—suggesting that as many as 8% of all mobile devices sold last year could be substandard or counterfeit.
The number is much higher in some countries than others: In India, more than 20% of mobile phones on the market are counterfeit or substandard, and the Mobile Manufacturers Forum estimates that saturation in Tanzania has fluctuated between 10% and 20% in recent years. In Libya, an estimated 80% of mobile devices are smuggled into the country illegally, leaving the safety of their components unknown.
One Brazilian study referenced in the report tested five counterfeit phones for hazardous substances, and found lead and cadmium levels to be much higher than EU regulations allow:
And in India, a study of devices available for purchase found that Chinese brands and counterfeit phones had high levels of lead:
While the lead and cadmium inside these phones probably isn’t enough to endanger your health (unless you come into direct contact with it), it’s still not good. Once the components are exposed—in a landfill, for example—even small amounts of lead, cadmium, and mercury can cause permanent brain damage in children, according to The World Health Organization.
You can find some tips for spotting a fake phone here, but the most useful indicator is also the simplest: If you find an iPhone that seems too cheap to be real, it probably isn’t. And it isn’t just your own safety that’s at risk.