Zachary Ruffing was born almost blind. The bones in his head and shoulders are deformed and he has difficulty using his mouth, but according to his lawyer, Amanda Hawes, he's bright. "He wants to be an astronomer," she says.
Thirteen-year-old Zachary and his parents are trying to pin the blame on one of the world's most powerful corporations. When he was conceived and born in 1985 both his parents worked at an IBM semiconductor plant in East Fishkill, New York, where they claim they were exposed to a variety of solvents and other toxic chemicals. Along with 140 other workers and children, they are now suing Big Blue for compensation. Their case, the first of its kind, will come to court this October.
Across the Atlantic in Scotland, Grace Morrison, aged 57, blames another American company, National Semiconductor, for the cancers that killed her sister and her friend-and nearly killed her. She is leading a group of 70 women who say they were exposed to chemicals at the company's plant in Greenock. The women are launching a legal battle in Scotland for compensation. "The manufacture of semiconductors is a dirty, dangerous business," Morrison says.
Both IBM and National Semiconductor deny responsibility for birth defects and cancers amongst workers and their children-and it will be hard to prove them wrong. But there is mounting evidence that women in the chip-making industry do suffer an increased risk of spontaneous abortion and that exposure to solvents may cause congenital deformities.
The increasing use of computers over the past few decades has fuelled an explosive growth in the microelectronics industry. From its origins in California's Silicon Valley, it has spread throughout Europe and Asia, and now employs more than a million people worldwide. There are 900 chip-making plants and a further 100 planned, supplying a worldwide market worth more than $150 billion a year. "Because of its growth and size," says Douglas Andrey of the US's Semiconductor Industry Association, "the chip industry is the pivotal driver of the world economy."
The semiconductor industry may also be a world leader in another way, according to Joseph LaDou, director of the International Center for Occupational Medicine at the University of California in San Francisco. "What was once thought to be the first 'clean' industry is actually one of the most chemical-intensive industries ever conceived," he says. In the process of making, etching and doping silicon chips, workers can be exposed to hundreds of chemicals, including solvents, LaDou says.
Campaigners fear that as the industry expands rapidly in the Far East-where safety standards are generally slacker-birth defects will be the unfortunate growth industry following right behind. Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a campaign group in California, says: "The dirtier and more labour-intensive processes are increasingly being shuffled to underdeveloped countries throughout the global South, creating a whole system of environmental and economic injustice." LaDou points out that many of the chemicals present in the factories, such as arsenic and benzene, are known carcinogens.
In a semiconductor plant, much of the work takes place in "clean rooms" in which everyone has to wear head-to-toe bunny suits. Unfortunately, this environment is designed to protect sensitive chips, not the health of employees. The air in such rooms is usually recirculated through filters to remove dust, but not replenished with clean air from outside, says LaDou. Toxic fumes are simply recycled. He thinks this may explain why US Department of Labor statistics show that rates of occupational illness in American semiconductor plants caused by "caustic, noxious and allergenic substances" are three times as high as in other manufacturing industries.
The most recent study to raise doubts about the safety of semiconductor workers is one of the most dramatic. In Canada, doctors at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto reported in March this year that 13 out of 125 pregnant women exposed to workplace solvents gave birth to children with major congenital malformations, such as spina bifida or deafness. This compares to only one out of 125 women in jobs where they were not exposed to solvents (The Journal of the American Medical Association, vol 281, p 1106).
Hawes says this evidence will help Zachary Ruffing and her other clients in their claims against IBM because many of the solvents to which the women in the study were exposed are commonplace in semiconductor plants. "For people who have lived through this, it is not a mystery. It is an outrage," she declares.
IBM says it does not comment on any matter that is the subject of litigation. "IBM employs very rigorous safety standards in all parts of its business," says a company spokesman in New York, "and we believe the facts are on our side."
Since 1988 there have been three major studies of miscarriage rates in the American chip-making industry. These suggest that women who become pregnant while working in semiconductor plants are between 40 per cent and 100 per cent more likely to suffer spontaneous abortions than pregnant women who do not work in these plants. LaDou argues that these studies, which altogether involved 2500 pregnancies and 370 miscarriages, make it "increasingly clear that a reproductive risk exists in semiconductor manufacture".
The industry, however, has taken comfort from a study published in Britain last year by the government's Health and Safety Executive (HSE). After comparing 36 miscarriages suffered by women working for five semiconductor companies in Britain with 80 controls, the authors concluded that there was no evidence of an increased risk of spontaneous abortion.
LaDou dismisses the HSE study as "uninterpretable" because it involved so few women. In a debate with LaDou at a seminar organised by the Scottish Occupational Health and Safety Research Network at the University of Glasgow last month, the study's lead author, Richard Elliott from the HSE, stuck to his conclusion. But he accepted that his numbers were not statistically significant.
Whether semiconductor plants trigger cancers is even less clear, and the question has yet to be properly investigated. LaDou contends that because reproductive toxicity is often associated with cancer, it, too, could be a problem. Bruce Fowler, director of the toxicology programme at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, is "not surprised" that anecdotal reports of unusual cancer rates among silicon chip workers are finally starting to emerge.
It will be a while before these claims can be proved or disproved. The first cancer studies are just starting in Britain and the US. The HSE hopes to begin examining cancer rates at National Semiconductor at Greenock in the next few months. The company, while confirming that it has been collecting data on its employees for the HSE, suggests that smoking and poor diet are more likely causes of any cancers. "We are committed to providing a healthy and safe working environment," says a spokesman.
In the US, an initial reluctance by the semiconductor industry to accept a cancer study seems to have been overcome, thanks to the women in Scotland who are taking on National Semiconductor. After reports of their campaign in The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, the newly elected Attorney General for California, Bill Lockyer, put pressure on companies in Silicon Valley. As a result, a cancer study has now been begun by the Californian Department of Health Services.
Welcome as these studies are, critics such as Ted Smith say they may be too late for some American and Scottish workers. And in countries such as China, India, Indonesia and Malaysia, there may be worse horrors to come.
Author: Rob Edwards
New Scientist issue 15 May 1999
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