Henry Drew worked at an East Fishkill, New York, semiconductor plant for 15 years. He remembers how four women workers had miscarriages and that several others complained about a variety of illnesses. One of them was his wife Debbie, who had to undergo two operations to remove brain tumors and remains partially paralyzed from the experiences. Debbie left the computer chip industry in 1989; Henry in 1992.
Drew adamantly believes that the US government should have played a stronger role in monitoring the semiconductor industry in the 1980s to protect worker health and prevent safety problems. "I wrote a letter to OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health and Administration] and never got a reply," Drew said. "I can recall officials from that agency coming to inspect the plant only once or twice. Given the number of people getting sick, you would think that OSHA would have taken a closer look."
In 1996, Drew and 127 other former IBM workers and their families, including 11 who have died of cancer, filed a lawsuit against several chemical makers, including Eastman Kodak, Union Carbide, J.T. Baker Chemical Corporation, and K.T.I. Chemical Corporation. Worker’s compensation laws in New York State prevent employees from suing IBM directly. But their children can sue, and 16 are a part of the lawsuit, claiming birth defects from in utero exposure.
The New York case is one of the three major lawsuits involving the semiconductor (computer chip) industry. In San Jose, California, a group of cancer victims and their families have filed suit against IBM and its chemical suppliers, alleging that workers at the local IBM plant were exposed to fatal doses of cancer-causing chemicals over three decades. Meanwhile, 70 women in Scotland are suing another US company, National Semiconductor, claiming exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.
The lawsuits are bringing high profile attention to the environmental and occupational impact of the world’s largest and fastest growing manufacturing sector. Because of its size and growth, the $150 billion computer chip industry has been described as "the pivotal driver of the world economy." The industry began quietly in Silicon Valley a little more than a quarter century ago. Today, more than 900 computer chip plants can be found in Arizona, Massachusetts, Virginia, Texas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Idaho, as well as throughout Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
This prodigious growth, however, has come with a hefty environmental price tag. Few industries require the same amount of toxic chemicals to manufacture products. And it begins with the silicon chip, the basic building block of computer devices. The number of toxic materials needed to make the 220 billion silicon chips manufactured annually is staggering: highly corrosive hydrochloric acid; metals such as arsenic, cadmium, and lead; volatile solvents like methyl chloroform, benzene, acetone, and trichloroethylene (TCE); and a number of super toxic gases.
"The materials are just part of the problem," pointed out JoLani Hironaka, director of the San Jose, California-based Santa Clara Center for Occupational Health (SCCOSH), which works on behalf of computer chip industry workers in Santa Clara County, where Silicon Valley is located. "There has been a tremendous growth in the number of industries manufacturing chemicals and other materials used at computer chip plants and in the amount of waste generated in the production process."
According to Graydon Laraby of Texas Instruments, the manufacture of just one batch of chips requires on average 27 pounds of chemicals, 29 cubic feet of hazardous gases, nine pounds of hazardous waste, and 3,787 gallons of water, which requires extensive chemical treatment.
The semiconductor industry’s environmental impact is well documented. Consider that Silicon Valley, the mother lode of the computer chip industry, has the country’s largest number of EPA Superfund Priorities List sites (29) and that more than 100 different contaminants have been linked to the local drinking water. Historically, much of the liquid waste from chip making in Silicon Valley was stored in underground tanks, many of which leaked toxic waste into ground-water supplies.
Toxic gas also has been a problem. In 1992, for example, one San Jose neighborhood had to be evacuated after toxic smoke poured out of a local chip plant.
In the mid-1990s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began its Project XL program, which allows semiconductor manufacturers to develop what the federal agency hopes will be innovative, pro-active approaches to the environmental compliance and cleanup, in partnership with the agency and the general public. The XL program is allowing semiconductor manufacturers to avoid what they consider to be costly and time-consuming permit reviews. But critics consider it a sweetheart deal for environmental deregulation that has set back the clock on hard-won laws protecting the environment.
"The agreement doesn’t deliver on President Clinton’s promise to make corporations like Intel more accountable to their workers and to the communities in which they operate," said Ted Smith, Executive Director of the San Jose, California-based Silicon Valley Toxic Association. "The agreement is going to expose workers and the people of Arizona to increased toxic chemicals."
The intense economic competition of the global marketplace is accelerating the pace of change in the tools and materials used during the semiconductor manufacturing process. In the mid 1970s, a new technology typically took six to eight years from research to full manufacturing. Heading into the 21st century, the industry develops a new chip making process about every two to three years. Intel, the giant computer chip maker, reports that each of its factories makes an average of 30 to 60 significant changes in operations each year in order to ramp up production of new types of chips.
While hundreds of new chemicals are introduced annually, industry critics say
adequate toxicological assessments are rare. "One can say that the workers are being used as guinea pigs," Smith charged. Many manufacturing processes take place in closed systems, which means that exposures to harmful substances are often difficult to detect unless monitored daily.
Currently, at least 127 new semiconductor fabrication plants are in various stages of planning and construction worldwide, with the total expenditure expected to exceed $115 billion. This worries environmental, workers rights, and human rights activists, who are beginning to detect serious disease and health problems at semiconductor plants in foreign countries.
In Taiwan, for example, 57 Filipinos, working at a Phillips Electronics plant from July 1996 to December 1997, got sick. Five of them died, the result of a disease known as Stevens-Johnson Syndrome (SJS), claim activists. The rest were fired. Some of the workers are being represented by the Committee on Justice for SJS Survivors (CJSS) and AlterLaw, a Manila-based non-profit workers and human rights organization, with assistance from the Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety and Health.
Writing in a SCCOSH publication, Raquel Sancho commented, "When I reflect on all these sad experiences faced by workers overseas, I realize the parallels between Phil-lips Electronics workers’ plight in Taiwan and the health and safety problems experienced by our own immigrant workers here in Silicon Valley."
Meanwhile, the first lawsuit against IBM, scheduled for trial in Spring 2000, will involve Zachary Ruffing, a 13-year-old boy born with severe birth defects to a couple of IBM workers. Industry officials are reportedly worried that unless they score a clear legal victory they could face a deluge of lawsuits comparable to the litigation over the silicon implants that bankrupted Dow Corning.
Asked if he thought if IBM would settle the suit, William DeProspo, a lawyer with the firm representing the boy, said, "The workers I represent put IBM where it is today. If I were IBM, I would want to turn something ugly into something positive. I wouldn’t relish having to go trial and facing all the legal cases that are surely going to come."
Contributing writer Ron Chepesiuk is a Rock Hill, South Carolina-based freelance journalist.