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EMF Studies

03 October 2016

In Your Phone, In the Air

A worker at the Jin Yang graphite factory in Mashan, in
China's northeastern Heilongjiang province, in May.
After leaving Chinese mines and refiners, much of the graphite is sold to Samsung SDI, LG Chem and Panasonic — the three largest manufacturers of lithium-ion batteries. Those companies supply batteries to major consumer companies such as Samsung, LG, General Motors and Toyota.

In Your Phone, In the Air

Story by Peter Whoriskey
Videos by Jorge Ribas
The Washington Post, 2 October 2016

A trace of graphite is in consumer tech. In these Chinese villages, it’s everywhere.

A t night, the pollution around the village has an otherworldly, almost fairy-tale quality.

“The air sparkles,” said Zhang Tuling, a farmer in a village in far northeastern China. “When any bit of light hits the particles, they shine.”

By daylight, the particles are visible as a lustrous gray dust that settles on everything. It stunts the crops it blankets, begrimes laundry hung outside to dry and leaves grit on food. The village’s well water has become undrinkable, too.

Beside the family home is a plot that once grew saplings, but the trees died once the factory began operating, said Zhang’s husband, Yu Yuan.

“This is what we live with,” Zhang said, slowly waving an arm at the stumps.

Zhang and Yu live near a factory that produces graphite, a glittery substance that, while best known for filling pencils, has become an indispensable resource in the new millennium. It is an ingredient in lithium-ion batteries.

Smaller and more powerful than their predecessors, lithium batteries power smartphones and laptop computers and appear destined to become even more essential as companies make much larger ones to power electric cars.

The companies making those products promote the bright futuristic possibilities of the “clean” technology. But virtually all such batteries use graphite, and its cheap production in China, often under lax environmental controls, produces old-fashioned industrial pollution.

At five towns in two provinces of China, Washington Post journalists heard the same story from villagers living near graphite companies: sparkling night air, damaged crops, homes and belongings covered in soot, polluted drinking water — and government officials inclined to look the other way to benefit a major employer.

After leaving these Chinese mines and refiners, much of the graphite is sold to Samsung SDI, LG Chem and Panasonic — the three largest manufacturers of lithium-ion batteries. Those companies supply batteries to major consumer companies such as Samsung, LG, General Motors and Toyota.

Apple products use batteries made by those companies, too — specifically from Samsung SDI and LG Chem. But Fred Sainz, an Apple spokesman, said that for current products, the company has switched to synthetic graphite, which is not mined. The company declined to say when it made the change to rely exclusively on synthetic graphite.

Some provinces in China sought to crack down on the polluters, and three years ago they issued fines to several graphite companies.

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