Dark Side of the Chip

By Amanda Hawes and Ted Smith

The ‘clean rooms’ of the high-tech electronics industry actually use several toxic chemicals

Forty years ago, the agricultural valley south of San Francisco was known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight because it produced such abundant fruits and vegetables. Today it is known worldwide as Silicon Valley and many of the workers who used to work in the fields picking fruit and vegetables became electronics workers, making semiconductor chips, disk drives and circuit boards for the high-tech revolution. Little did they know that they were guinea pigs in a terrible toxic tragedy.

Alida Hernandez was one of the many fruit processing workers who were ‘re-invented’ as a ‘clean room’ worker and didn’t realise that she was sacrificing her health in a pattern that would soon be replicated around the world. No one ever told her that her exposure to electronics solvents at IBM’s disk drive factory in San Jose, CA, would lead to her cancer. She is just one of many who have suffered dreadful diseases without realising what they had signed up for.

Likewise, Ying would never have agreed to work in electronics if she had known that her exposure to toxic chemicals would cause her child to be born blind and with structural brain damage.

Their stories and those of so many others need to be heard around our global village before it is too late.

Workers in India and throughout the developing world — where the high-tech revolution is still presenting itself as the ‘clean industry’ that is the 21st century solution to the world’s problems — must be warned while there is still time.

As the toxic troubles emerged in parts of the US and then throughout the world, other casualties were discovered — the ‘collateral damage’ of the high-tech revolution:

Helen Clark, a semiconductor worker in Scotland who blew the whistle on National Semiconductor and got the Scottish government to conduct a health study, died of cancer in 2004.
Wen-Shen Liu, the child of a mother who was exposed to toxic chemicals while working in an RCA factory in Taiwan, died of hepatoblastoma at the age of three. Her mother later died of breast cancer, one of hundreds of victims of toxic exposure.
Naomi died of scleroderma after years of toxic exposure in ‘clean rooms’.
Jim died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma before turning 60.
Ron and Ed both died young of brain cancer, after years as hands-on ‘technical’ workers in the ‘clean rooms’.
Unfortunately, these are all true stories (some names have been changed) and they are only the tip of the iceberg. While the electronics industry has vigorously resisted comprehensive health studies of its workers, data continues to emerge connecting work in electronics factories to serious health problems for workers and their children. This is especially crucial since all around the world most electronics production workers are women of childbearing age. Here are some examples:

Three epidemiological studies done in the US in the 1980s all found high rates of miscarriages among semiconductor workers.
IBM maintained a “corporate mortality file” which documented that, over a 30-year period, IBM workers with exposure to chemicals died younger and more frequently from toxic-related cancers than the national average.
The Scottish Health and Safety Agency conducted a health study of workers at National Semiconductor in Scotland and found disproportionately high rates of cancer among them.
After years of resistance, the Semiconductor Industry Association has contracted with Vanderbilt University to conduct a chip industry worker health study to assess the cancer risk to semiconductor workers. The results are expected in 2009.
In their groundbreaking article ‘Cancer and Reproductive Risks in the Semiconductor Industry’, Joseph Ladou, MD, and John C Bailar III, PhD, have documented the serious health concerns of semiconductor workers.
As workers and communities began to discover this ‘dark side of the chip’, they began to come together to confront its ‘clean’ image.

Starting in Silicon Valley in the 1970s, electronics workers and their allies began documenting the occupational health impacts and then organising to advocate for improvements. The Santa Clara Centre for Occupational Safety and Health was the pioneer in this effort, and later spun off the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition to address the related community health issues — initially groundwater contamination, later air pollution, and then the mounting piles of hazardous electronic waste. The movement has gone from grassroots to global as similar groups emerged in other countries — PHASE II in Scotland, Asia Monitor Resource Centre in Hong Kong, TAVOI in Taiwan, CEREAL in Mexico, etc. Many of these groups are now working together internationally to develop worker training on occupational health and safety, to press the electronics industry to phase out use of the most toxic chemicals, and to advocate for a safer, healthier and more just workplace for production workers.

It has become increasingly clear that the accelerated pace of corporate-led globalisation requires a robust grassroots global response. That is why many of these groups came together with the International Campaign for Responsible Technology to convene the firstGlobal Symposium on Strategies for a Sustainable High-Tech Industry, in 2002, in San Jose, California. Participants came together to address several related issues, like:

Rising community and workers’ health problems.
Deteriorating workers’ rights.
Increasing water and air pollution.
Growing crisis of electronic waste.
Escalating corporate influence on global institutions and agreements such as the WTO.
An action plan was developed that included a commitment by participants to pool their experiences into a new book, which became Challenging the Chip: Labour Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry, published in 2006. Contributors to this pioneering volume include many of the world’s most articulate, passionate and progressive visionaries, scholars and advocates. Here they not only document the unsustainable and often devastating practices of the global electronics industry but also chronicle creative ways in which activists, government agencies and others have attempted to reform the industry — through resistance, persuasion, and regulation.

One book reviewer captured the importance of the effort:

Challenging the Chip is certainly the most comprehensive review of the social, health and environmental consequences of the electronics industry to date and provides a critical platform for developing new theoretical and empirical research on the political economy and ecology of the industry. The plethora of topics explored also highlights the multiplicity of disciplines that can contribute to debates about the chip industry, including the social sciences, public health, and environmental sciences. A most impressive feature of the book is the way in which it developed out of a collaborative partnership of intellectuals and activists with a shared vision of sustainability and justice.

— Electronic Green Journal

Since the book’s publication there have been many additional efforts by NGOs to move ahead with a “labour rights and environmental justice” agenda for electronics workers and communities. ANROAV — the Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational Accident Victims — has increased its focus on electronics workers’ health and safety and has included panels and workshops at its last two annual meetings. The European Work Hazards Network has also included electronics health and safety workshops at its conferences, as has the nationalCommittees on Occupational Safety and Health Network (COSH) in the United States.

There is also growing interest in India and China, countries with the most rapid high-tech growth and consequently with the most at stake in terms of workers’ rights, worker and community health, and electronic waste impacts. Following the publication of Challenging the Chip there were forums held in Bangalore and Kerala, organised by Asia Monitor Resource Centre, Waste Not Asia, and other labour and grassroots groups. Likewise, a book tour was arranged in China by Greenpeace which energised large groups of students and others at several campuses in south China and in Beijing. Media attention is growing throughout Asia and throughout the world — a recent presentation at an eco-waste forum in Manila was featured in an article in the Manila Times. And the emergence this past year of the dazzling Internet video The Story of Stuff has informed and excited millions of activists around the globe.

It’s been a long time since the Valley of Heart’s Delight began to disappear in its transformation to Silicon Valley. Hopefully it’s still not too late to learn the lessons of this experience, to protect emerging ‘Silicon Valleys’ in India and throughout Asia. The growing grassroots global movement is increasingly speaking truth to power, putting a human face on the dark side of globalisation, and providing a vision for a new sustainable electronics industry. It’s about time we learned from the lessons of the past, since the future continues to be built before our very eyes, and, as we know, it is being built on even more powerful and less understood technologies such as nano technology. Our challenges are only just beginning.

Toxic waste dumping

We’ve learned over the years that the harm done to electronics workers is another example of “canaries in the coal mine” serving as a warning to the rest of us — that the same chemicals that cause harm in the manufacture of products have escaped into the surrounding communities and into the environment causing widespread groundwater contamination and air pollution. And, since the lifecycle of electronic products is so short, hundreds of millions of “obsolete” computers, cell phones, televisions, iPods, etc, are presenting enormous health problems as they are being discarded in massive numbers, usually dumped on the poorest communities in Asia and Africa. While most consumers remain blissfully ignorant about the health and safety problems of these workers, and of the inhuman working conditions, increasingly the “end of life” concerns are attracting public attention since the impacts are now so visible and create such a sense of horror among the people who have come to depend on these 21st century gadgets.

This cyber-age nightmare was first reported in 2002 in ‘Exporting Harm’ by the Basel Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and has since been confirmed by many other media and government sources. Activists in the US working with the Electronics TakeBack Coalition continue to focus attention on e-waste exports to Asia and Africa and the terrible environmental and health consequences it is causing. A recent report by the US Government Accounting Office — ‘EPA Needs to Better Control Harmful US Exports through Stronger Enforcement and More Comprehensive Regulation’ — documented the ongoing “sham recycling”, where millions of pounds of electronic waste continue to be dumped onto the developing world. And 60 Minutes — the premier US television investigative reporting show — just produced a blockbuster piece Following the Trail of Toxic E-waste which brought these issues to millions of people who had previously been uninformed.

The scandal highlights the fact that the US is the only industrial nation in the world that has not ratified the Basel Convention which prohibits the export of hazardous waste from wealthy countries to developing countries. In the absence of strong and effective laws, toxic waste from the US will continue to flow downhill in the global economy. With the recent US elections promising “change” there will be a concerted effort to confront this injustice head-on, starting in 2009; activists are optimistic that they will finally be able to bring an end to toxic waste dumping.

(Amanda Hawes is the founder of the Santa Clara Centre for Occupational Safety and Health and a partner in the law firm Alexander & Hawes in San Jose, California, where she represents electronics workers and their families who have been harmed by exposure to toxic chemicals. Ted Smith is founder of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and the International Campaign for Responsible Technology and is Chair of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition. He is co-editor and co-author of Challenging the Chip: Labour Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry, published by Temple University Press)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009

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