Illustration: Elena Xausa

Bad Ideas

This Is What Would Happen If You Literally Ate Your Phone

Minced, baked, or swallowed whole, a smartphone makes a terrible meal

Welcome to Bad Ideas, a column in which we examine the practical limits of technology by considering the things you could do, and then investigating exactly why you shouldn’t. Because you can still learn from mistakes you’ll never make.

AApple likes to claim that their phone recycling program is “good for you, good for the planet.” Recycling is a noble cause, but what if we didn’t have to turn to the source of our e-waste to find a solution for it? We humans have a time-tested recycling program, literally, right under our noses: our guts.

We eat things, our body extracts the nutrients we need, and then discards the rest in a solid piece of solid waste (poop). That’s good for us, and good for the planet. So, why not recycle our phones the old-fashioned way, and eat them?

There are at least two documented cases of people attempting to do just that.

According to a 2014 case study, a 35-year-old male, intoxicated, attempted to swallow their cellphone, only to lodge it in their throat. It had to be surgically removed. Another case study, published in 2016, documented a 29-year-old patient who successfully swallowed a cell phone, though photos suggest that it was a candy bar-style feature phone, not a smartphone. In spite of several hours of vomiting, the phone remained in their stomach, thus requiring doctors to remove it. First they tried endoscopy (that is, trying to pull it back out through the esophagus); when that failed, they surgically opened up the patient and pulled the phone directly out of their stomach, not unlike a cesarean section.

Perhaps these two unlucky souls just got their technique wrong. Maybe there’s a right way to consume your expensive pocket computer?

The most obvious method of consumption — the one we’re biologically engineered for — is biting, chewing, and swallowing. Try as you might, you cannot masticate your phone. Based on the Mohs scale, an ordinal measure of a mineral’s hardness, tooth enamel falls somewhere at a 5. Today’s smartphones are made from glass (hardness: 7.5) and either stainless steel (hardness: 6.5) or an aluminum alloy (hardness: 5.5). All of these are too hard for your teeth to even make a scratch.

What about swallowing it whole? The average diameter of a relaxed human esophagus is 30 millimeters, or just over 1 inch. Meanwhile, the iPhone 11 has a stated width of 75.7 millimeters, or just under 3 inches. “Your standard iPhone or Samsung Galaxy won’t even get into the esophagus,” Dr. Austin Chiang, a board-certified gastroenterologist and the chief medical social media officer for Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University Hospital explains over email. A feature phone might go down easier, but as the 2016 case study suggests, it won’t be pleasant.

A 35-year-old male, intoxicated, attempted to swallow their cell phone, only to lodge it in their throat.

So, if you can’t chew your smartphone and you can’t swallow it, it seems like you’ll have to do some prep work: chopping up your phone into swallowable bits.

But there’s danger there too. As you may have learned from the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 battery crisis, there is a not-insignificant chance that chopping your phone up will cause it to explode and catch on fire.

“Batteries are very complicated, heavy-energy producing products,” says Barbara Guthrie, vice president of corporate sustainability at Underwriters Laboratories, a consumer product safety organization that stress tests and certifies just about everything from hoverboards to washing machines. “By puncturing, bending, or cutting that battery, you are looking to let out, or release that energy. It will definitely start a fire.”

Even trained electronics recycling professionals must carefully extract the lithium-ion batteries by hand to avoid what the engineers call a “thermal event.” Taking a butcher knife to your device is a recipe for disaster.

Even if you could chop your phone up, a 2016 study found that lithium-ion batteries containing a commonly-used electrolyte salt, LiPF6, can potentially release hydrogen fluoride, which, when it comes in contact with moisture, forms hydrofluoric acid, an extremely corrosive acid that can be harmful to humans in concentrations as low as 24 parts per million.

And swallowing a battery whole will do irreversible damage to your body, as your own saliva would serve to complete the battery’s circuit. This is why poison control centers specifically advise parents to take immediate action whenever a child swallows a battery, as they can burn through an esophagus in a matter of hours.

Then there’s obvious hazard here, being the act of ingesting shards of metal and glass. Between 2002 and 2014, 1,700 unlucky folks unknowingly swallowed an errant metal bristle from a wire grill brush. It wasn’t a happy experience.

Of course, you could grind your phone into a fine dust, and use it to season your food. Depending on how much dust you consume (or inhale) in a given sitting, you’d likely give yourself some degree of heavy-metal poisoning. This means headaches, vomiting, confusion, numbness, and if your phone is made from aluminum, potential brain damage.

It seems fitting. Any way you cut it, your phone is a toxic device. Don’t eat it.

I write about technology. Regular contributor to Medium’s OneZero. Seen in Vice, Businessweek, The Outline and others. he/him. steverousseau.org

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