Microchip manufacturers contaminated the groundwater in the 1980s. Almost 40 years later, the cleanup still isn’t complete.
Silicon Valley was a major industrial center for much of the 20th century. Semiconductors and microprocessors rolled out of factories scattered all over the area (known on maps as Santa Clara County) from the 1950s to the early 1990s—AMD, Apple, Atari, Fairchild, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Xerox, to name just a few. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, Santa Clara County added 203,000 manufacturing jobs, 85 percent of them in tech. Beginning in the 1980s, as government contracts disappeared, Silicon Valley companies moved toward creating software, and beginning in the 1990s, companies there largely focused on internet-based applications. Now the area trades mostly in the rarefied and intangible realm of apps and software.
It’s hard to see that now, when glass-walled office buildings, corporate campuses, and strip malls along highways that bloom into concrete clovers dominate the landscape of this former industrial area. But all of that industrial history left something behind.
The Google Quad Campus looks way too nice to sit on top of an active Superfund site: There are matching bikes, a pool with primary-colored umbrellas, and a contained universe that looks more like a college or a park than a satellite campus of one of the biggest companies in the world.*
The sites came to the attention of the EPA after groundwater testing in the area revealed that toxic chemicals—notably, a solvent called trichloroethylene—were present, possibly from leaking pipes or underground storage tanks. Trichloroethylene, which was used to clean semiconductors (a component of computer chips) during the production process, is associated with increased risk of certain cancers, developmental disabilities among children exposed in utero, increased rates of miscarriage, and endocrine disruption.
Back in the ’80s, IBM, Fairchild, and other companies accused of polluting the groundwater denied that the chemicals posed any sort of threat to human health. In 1985, a California Department of Health Services study reported a significantly higher than expected rate of miscarriage and birth defects near the leaking tanks, though the department did not have conclusive evidence to tie the health problems to the leaks. (Neither IBM nor Schlumberger Technology Corporation, the company responsible for cleanup at the former Fairchild site, responded to requests for comment.)
Over the past three decades, the EPA and the companies involved in polluting Silicon Valley’s groundwater have filtered and cleaned some of it, but the agency’s website acknowledges that the cleanup will continue for many decades. That’s in part because the toxic molecules have spread throughout the area—NBC Bay Area reported in 2014 that, according to government officials, there are 518 toxic plumes of groundwater in Santa Clara County, a number that advocates say is an underestimate.
The EPA maintains that there are no direct-exposure pathways to the contaminated groundwater anymore, but the problem now is that the toxins can get from the groundwater into the air in buildings via a process called vapor intrusion, which is what happened at Google. And while it’s not entirely clear yet what the consequences of lifetime environmental exposure are, research from South Korea suggests they may be serious. According to one study, Bloomberg Businessweek reported in 2017, miscarriage rates among women who worked at several South Korean microchip factories were nearly three times those of the general population. At one Samsung factory, two young women who worked next to each other were diagnosed with the same form of aggressive leukemia, a cancer that affects three out of every 100,000 South Koreans every year. The women died within months of each other.
For the original article, please visit https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/09/silicon-valley-full-superfund-sites/598531/