Miscellaneous Ramblings

Is There a Cure for a Smelly Mac?

Charles Moore - 2012.07.30 - Tip Jar

The Guardian reports that a reader bought a high-end Mac Pro desktop but, like some other users of pre-2008 models, has been plagued by its unpleasant smell. The computer has been in for repair three times, but after having thermal pastes, heat sinks, and the power unit replaced over two-and-a-half years of repairs, the problem still persists, and the owner is now considering legal action under the UK's Sales of Goods Act, saying he's at the end of his tether, because Apple says it's no longer prepared to do anything about it, leaving him with a machine that he can't use.

As one who's been battling Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) for more than 30 years, my experience is that computers do tend to "gas off" eventually, but it takes a long time - usually measured in years rather than days, weeks, or even a few months. Eighteen months to two years has been typical for Apple laptops. Even the metal-skinned 'Books are afflicted, indicating that the chemical composition of internal electronic components is the likely culprit.

It's Nothing New - Or Specifically Apple

It's not only Apple computers that are affected, of course, but not much has come of two decades of complaining about it. One of the maddening aspects of the issue is that some electronics products seem to emit little chemical odor even when new, while others still do after years of use.

As the Guardian notes, the "smelly Mac Pro" issue became a story in 2008 when a French newspaper, Libération, published an article entitled "Mac Pro, le ppin toxique pour Apple?" ("Mac Pro, the Seed Toxic to Apple?" - Google translation). Seems, according to the Libération report, a molecular biologist at France's CNRS - Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (National Center for Science and Research) - who remained anonymous by request, was affected by a strange smell emitting from his new Mac Pro back in February 2007. Symptoms cited included his eye, nose, and larynx irritation and soreness.

After he receiving no satisfactory resolution of the issue from Apple, which reportedly sent out second computer for him to try - and which he found just as objectionably smelly as the first one - he contacted Greenpeace to get the chemical vapors emerging from his Mac analyzed by Analytica, an independent laboratory, which found seven volatile organic contaminants. According to the Libération article and other subsequent reports, some of the emissions were identified by gas chromatography and mass spectrometry as toxic, harmful substances, including propanal, ethanone, isobenzofurandione, propanone, and acetic acid, as well as styrene and benzene, the latter of particular concern because it is a potent carcinogen suspected of contributing to bone marrow damage and leukemia for people exposed over long periods of time, while short-term exposure may result in nausea, vomiting, dizziness, narcosis, reduction in blood pressure, and Central Nervous System (CNS) depression.

"Benzene can affect the bone marrow. Imagine a person works eight hours a day for two months inhaling such vapors, sensitive people could very well develop leukemia, " said Annie Leszkowicz, an expert in chemical risk for the French Agency for safety of the environment and labor quoted in the Libération piece. The American Cancer Society says benzene has been found to elevate cancer probability in workers exposed to a minuscule 10 parts per million. Skin contact may lead to dermatitis. Long-term exposure may lead to irreversible effects, and it's a severe eye irritant.

According to a report by Macworld's Philip Michaels, Apple disputed that there was any evidence supporting the claim that the off-gassing is dangerous and affirmed that its products complied with European Union restrictions on the use of potentially hazardous chemicals.

Toxicity Is Not the Issue

"The criteria applied in standard toxicology evaluations are essentially irrelevant in the context of a substance's potential as a MCS irritant or trigger."

The disconnect here is that toxicity in the conventionally-understood sense is not the issue. People afflicted with MCS are typically affected by emissions of chemicals that are regarded as completely benign from a toxicology standpoint, such as the aroma of flowers, various natural oils (some of which are used in aromatherapy), and scents used in personal care and cleaning products. The criteria applied in standard toxicology evaluations are essentially irrelevant in the context of a substance's potential as a MCS irritant or trigger.

It's also important to note that the Analytica lab analysis was qualitative (identifying the substances present) but not quantitative (determining levels of chemical emissions), so no conclusions as to the degree of real-world health risk from toxicity (if any) can be drawn without further research.

However, the Guardian notes that searching the community support section of Apple's website turns up plenty of complaints and queries about smelly Macs, including chemical odors emitting from Mac mini, 27" iMac, and MacBook Pro machines with Intel Core i7 processors, and it also emphasizes that the problem is not unique to Apple computers, with plenty of PC users also complaining about chemical odors wafting from their computers, and that the issue doesn't appear to be a generic problem with recent or current Apple products.

Way back in 1999, Salon's Janelle Brown posted a column entitled "Eau de Mac" suggesting: "perhaps today's olfactory status symbol is the smell of scorching plastic." Ms. Brown's reference was to a review on MacInTouch (no longer online) of the then-new Power Mac G4 machines which noted that the computers emitted an unpleasant odor when turned on, and an Apple Tech Info Library article that acknowledged: "New Equipment: Odors May Be Present Short-Term" .

Apple's 1999 tech bulletin says: 

"In some cases, an unusual odor may be detected when a product has been turned on and allowed to warm up to operating temperature. Typically, the odor is detected when the product is new, similar to odors generated from new carpeting or a new car. In most cases the odor will dissipate over a short period of time."

Or not, as we shall discuss further below.

Apple suggested that if the odor problem persists, the machine be placed in a well-ventilated room and allowed to operate over an "extended" period of time (possibly 24-72 hours) or until the odor dissipates.

However, at least from a MCS perspective, that sort of time frame is laughably optimistic. Like I said, for users with full-blown MCS, it's prudent to anticipate months or years for the off-gassing process as long as this issue is not proactively addressed.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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