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Chemical teardown finds iPhone 5 cleaner & greener than Samsung Galaxy S3

The iPhone 5 certainly comes across like a pretty clean device, what with its slick two-tone aluminium back plate, super-svelte chassis, and near weightless in-hand feel.

Turns out it holds up to technical scrutiny too, as teardown specialist iFixit found out when it teamed up with HealthyStuff.org to study the toxicity levels of 36 smartphones.

While iPhone handsets like the 4S have been found to have high measures of radiation exposure - in UK tabloid parlance, that's lots of it-gives-you-cancer, mate - it looks like their chemical composition is less of a worry. The iPhone 5 and its older sibling the 4S are two of only six devices deemed to be of "low concern" by the joint research project.

"It's easy to forget that toxic chemicals also lurk behind your phone's smooth face and behind your computer's keyboard. Yet lurk they do: high tech parts are made up of hazardous flame retardants, PVC, bromine, and heavy metals such as lead, mercury, tin, cadmium, and chromium," wrote iFixit's Kyle Wiens on the company blog.

HealthyStuff.org and iFixit examined the chemical components of various smartphone parts (see image, top) using an undeniably impressive sounding technology: X-ray fluorescence spectrometry. We haven't a clue what that actually means, but we do know that it's a way of measuring for toxic compounds like bromine, chlorine, mercury and lead.

Through the examination, the study was able to grade the smartphone pool on a scale of zero to five, where lowest is best.

The iPhone 4S is Apple's cleanest handset to date and the second most eco-friendly device according to the study, measuring in at 2.69, while the iPhone 5 scores slightly higher at 2.75.

The cleanest phone in the world apparently is the Motorola Citrus: the manufacturer's boast that its zesty handset is "easy on the eyes, earth, and pocketbook" stands up to scrutiny, with the device notching a best-of-class rating of 2.56. The iPhone 5's principal rival, the Samsung Galaxy S3, is found in a higher-danger category, placing in the "medium concern" segment with a score of 2.99.

Overall, industry trends are positive, with most new-generation handsets containing far fewer hazardous materials than earlier models: the original iPhone got full marks for its toxicity, scoring a 5.

"In general, the results are hopeful. Newer phones are being made with fewer hazardous chemicals: every phone that was ranked of "high concern" was released before 2010," Wiens noted.

"There is a trend of less toxics [sic] over time —especially for Apple. That's good, but it's not good enough", he concluded.

The findings no doubt make for pleasant reading for the Cupertino-based tech giant. Earlier in the year, Apple found itself on dubious environmental footing after it withdrew a number of its products from the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool scheme, which judges and classifies hardware on the basis of green criteria.

Amidst considerable public scrutiny, and threats from government officials in San Francisco to cease deployment of its products, Apple quickly reversed the decision and re-joined the system.