Poison Valley, Part 2

What new cocktails of toxic chemicals are brewing in the high-tech industry's "clean rooms" -- and will we ever know what harm they're causing?

Published July 31, 2001 8:45PM (EDT)

In the middle of the 19th century, the baleful effects of mercury poisoning were hard to escape for anyone familiar with California's quicksilver mines and refineries. As Gray Brechin writes in "Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin," "a visitor to New Almaden [Mine] in 1857 noted that the smoke from the refinery killed trees and cattle and that, despite short shifts, men exposed to the fumes had 'pale, cadaverous faces,' that 'leaden eyes' are the consequence of even these short spells, and any length of time continued at this labor effectively shortens life."

One of Brechin's recurring themes is that metropolises are sustained by the continuous pursuit of metals, and the energy necessary to produce more of the same. Quicksilver, or mercury, was essential for the reduction of gold ore. For centuries, the chemical phenomenon known as mercury amalgamation was the only financially viable method for extracting gold from stamped quartz or alluvial slurry. The early alchemists, it turns out, were not entirely mistaken in believing mercury a core element in the philosopher's stone, capable of changing waste materials into gold.

A century and a half later, aspiring cities are founded on the reduction of a new precious metal -- the computer chip -- which in the end is just a metalized piece of sand, or silicon.

If there is a philosopher's stone of the computer industry, it is the "photoresist," a mixture of organic solvents and photoactive compounds whose properties are altered upon exposure to light. Essential to the process of optical lithography -- the means by which chip makers "print" ever smaller circuit patterns on silicon wafers -- the photoresist is the chemical underpinning of Moore's Law, which famously predicted that the number of transistors that can be built on a piece of silicon will double every 18 months. It is, in many ways, the representative chemical formulation of the industry.

The photoresist is also, like mercury, potentially quite deadly. In the chip-making process, the photoresist is a solvent typically applied by dropping a small amount in the center of a spinning wafer, spreading a uniform coating across the substrate. According to former IBM physician Dr. Myron Harrison, there is an unusually high potential for worker exposure to photoresists through both inhalation and skin absorption.

As early as 1983, according to Harrison, lab tests had determined that a compound sometimes found in photoresist solvents called trihydroxybenzophenone was genotoxic. Along with the rest of the photoresist ingredients -- xylene and DQ sulfonic acid esters, the former a known neurotoxin, the latter genotoxic and mutagenic; n-butyl acetate, a suspected neurotoxicant and respiratory toxicant; and glycol ethers or EGE, the substances at the center of the industry studies discussed above that are known to cause extensive reproductive and developmental disorders -- the photoresist is one nasty concoction.

But it is only one of many nasty concoctions necessary for keeping the modern-day furnaces of Silicon Valley humming. And it is only through the unflagging efforts of activists, health experts like Joe LaDou and, not least, the pressure brought to bear by lawsuits such as the various complaints levied against IBM that public awareness of the dangers of semiconductor manufacturing -- or the assembly of other high-tech devices, such as the hard drives coated by IBM's Alida Hernandez -- is finally beginning to approach the level of what has long since been known about 19th century industrial processes.

But do we know whether the situation is getting better or worse? The effects of mercury poisoning were fairly easy to spot. The effects of exposure to photoresist ingredients may take many years to manifest. Even more troubling, by the time health experts and corporate executives have caught up to what may have been happening 20 years ago, the pace of technological advancement will no doubt have launched a whole new parade of threats.

LaDou has been publishing technical articles on the hazards of the semiconductor industry for nearly 20 years, having observed the industry firsthand in the early 1970s while practicing as an occupational physician in Sunnyvale, Calif.

"In the early days, it was not unusual to see people in first-stage anesthesia -- fairly drunk, staggering -- from solvent exposure," says LaDou, sitting in the sunroom of his Woodside home, a cylindrical structure built from the recycled redwood of an old water tower. "We treated literally dozens of hydrofluoric acid burns every day. The safety and health provisions in these companies were primitive at best."

While such provisions improved in the subsequent decades -- first with precautions like gloves, splash guards, face shields and safety glasses, followed by automatic loading techniques and more sophisticated air-monitoring systems -- risks of workplace exposure by inhalation or skin absorption have by no means been eradicated, says LaDou.

Recall that the percentage of work-loss injuries and illnesses involving "exposures to caustic, noxious and allergenic substances" is three to four times higher in the semiconductor industry than in manufacturing industries as a whole. Even so, LaDou feels that the safety statistics are fundamentally flawed, and reflect a far lower rate of illness than is actually taking place.

The reporting system for workers' compensation, he points out, dates back to a time when no occupational illnesses, not even lead poisoning, were recognized. It is thus geared toward tracking injured workers rather than sick workers. Because no one is losing fingers making integrated circuits, at first glance the industry can seem relatively safe. Employees who are fighting "psycho-organic" symptoms like headaches and nausea or who are losing weight because of solvent fumes are more likely to end up in the records of a personal physician than in filings with the Department of Labor.

Even when illnesses are properly reported, the industrial codes for workers' compensation offer no way to distinguish between semiconductor employees who actually work in the "clean rooms" -- who constitute approximately 25 percent of the workforce in a typical chip-making company -- and the remaining 75 percent who've never donned a bunny suit in their career. Compare this with the automobile industry, where approximately 90 percent of workers coded as automobile manufacturers are actually working on the auto production line.

"It makes epidemiologic research impossible, unless the company will tell you the magic information on who works where," LaDou says. "Otherwise you're studying people who work in the canteen, or work in offices, or sell product out of their cars." One can understand why LaDou turns ashen with frustration when discussing workers' compensation data. "They're such gross understatements of what's actually taking place," he insists. "We've wanted to look at the industrial hygiene data from inside the fabrication plants, and it's never been published, and it's never been made available to any experts."

Exasperated with the absence of reliable data, in 1998 LaDou and members of a working group developed a preliminary study plan with the Environmental Protection Agency's Common Sense Initiative to measure cancer and birth defects among California semiconductor workers by cross-linking the state's cancer and birth defect registries with an industry-provided database of semiconductor employees, broken down as to which employees held which job and in what occupational setting. With a few additions -- like tracking birth defects and collecting detailed job descriptions -- it was the same idea as a 1983 Swedish study that found an elevated risk of cancer among electronics workers as a whole, and that concluded with a call for further study "focusing on particular features of the work environment."

The EPA put forward $100,000, and California's Department of Health Services, which had been chosen to conduct the study, promised "an umbrella of confidentiality" to protect the privacy of both workers and specific companies.

At the last minute, the semiconductor industry pulled out, led by representatives from IBM and Intel. In a widely reported statement -- leaked to the press in violation of confidentiality rules -- Intel spokesman Tim Mohin declared: "To participate in a project like this would be like giving [legal] discovery to plaintiffs. I might as well take a gun and shoot myself."

Molly Maar, spokeswoman for the Semiconductor Industry Association, says that the SIA "allocates approximately 15 percent of its annual budget to environmental, health and safety issues," although she declined to state what the SIA's annual budget is. Asked for examples of proactive measures taken by the industry to safeguard worker health, she cites the Occupational Health System, an "ongoing, management-sponsored approach to performing work injury and illness surveillance" operated by industry consultant Don Lassiter.

When pressed for specific examples of how this data has been used to improve worker health and safety, Maar says that the industry is "constantly sharing practices" and "making sure that everyone is up to speed on chemical alternatives" and that "every generation [of new equipment and practices] as we go into the future is going to be safer and safer. That's just the way the industry is going to be. Those things, as time goes on, are just going to be better and better."

A search through SIA press releases turns up an announcement from March 2001 that the association was doubling the size of its Focus Center Research Program, funneling half a billion dollars over a 10-year period to leading research universities "to ensure continued advancements in microelectronics technology." The industry provides 50 percent of the funding of this program, divided into four efforts with the following goals: materials to extend the life of planar-bulk CMOS silicon, circuit analysis and synthesis, application methodologies for future computing devices and interconnects between a microchip and the total system.

That's $250 million in industry funds funneled into targeted research and development. Maar says that the research into future chip materials takes "environment, health and safety concerns into significant consideration," but is unable to say how much money, if any, such consideration costs.

For more details on proactive health measures taken by the industry in the past two decades, Maar referred me to Lassiter.

Lassiter, a professor of public health at the University of Oklahoma, was hired by the SIA in 1982 to develop and administer an internal health and safety reporting system -- which, curiously, comes up with a consistently lower rate of occupational illness in the industry than indicated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A former health official at both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Lassiter makes "no pretense that this [system], in any way, identifies chronic conditions ... It's not designed to do that. If those conditions exist -- there's no evidence they do -- but if they exist, then the system is certainly not capable of capturing those."

Lassiter is also unable to provide much in the way of specifics on the topic of workplace improvements. He cites general trends over the past two decades toward equipment automation and protective devices, resulting in "less potential for contact with chemicals," but with regard to the issue of worker safety he says, "I have less an opinion on stuff than I am just managing a database."

What about possible health hazards for clean-room workers as a result of contaminants in recirculated air?

"I'm not sure what people are talking about with recirculated air," he answers. "What you'd have to find out is how much the air really is recirculated, and if it is recirculated, what does that mean when you take air measurements? ... Even if you recirculate the air, I guess what they're saying is that the concentration of the chemicals increases."

Lassiter's critics disagree with his suggestion that their main problem with recirculated air is that it might increase the amount of chemicals ingested. What they're saying, and have been saying for 20 years, is that the air filters do not change the chemical makeup of vapors -- such as those escaping from the spilled disk coating Alida Hernandez describes -- and that these chemicals constitute low-level, long-term exposures that may accumulate in fatty tissue and have adverse chronic effects on worker health such as cancer. What they're also saying is that these chemicals, once metabolized by a worker, may react with other contaminants, creating new and untrackable pharmacological hazards.

Dr. Bruce Fowler, director of toxicology at the University of Maryland at College Park, explains it this way:

"Most commonly, what you see when you start mixing chemicals together is additivity -- it's like stacking blocks. But for some chemicals, you actually get a bigger bang than you would have expected when mixing two or more compounds. The literature of toxicology is replete with stories of potentiation [i.e, "bigger bangs"]. Sometimes you can have one chemical jack up the metabolizing system so that the toxification of the second chemical will actually be increased -- it's a very chemical-specific phenomenon. Who knows what would happen if you had five or six chemicals absorbed at the same time?"

"All of us vary in our susceptibility to chemicals," adds Fowler. "Some people say that [bigger bangs] are uncommon at low-level exposures, but then the question is, What's a low-level exposure? Low-level to whom? Is it a 35-year-old male? Is it a pregnant woman? Is it somebody who goes home every night and has a few drinks?"

If Don Lassiter is the unworried voice of the semiconductor industry, Mandy Hawes is the same industry's unassuming scourge. With a thin, pointed nose and straight brown hair cropped above the ears, Hawes is a long-distance runner who is also a careful speaker, with the litigant's habit of answering questions with citations and disclosing no more than is asked. Clients adore her and corporations loathe her. She is the eye of the storm against IBM.

"If the [local exhaust ventilation] doesn't capture the organic contaminants, where do they think they're going to go?" asks Hawes, founder of the Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety and Health and one of the most tireless activists on behalf of worker safety and health in the country. Last month, Hawes received an award from the Women's Foundation for her lifetime commitment to raising the issue of environmental causes of breast cancer. "People shouldn't even be in that sort of environment, breathing recirculated fumes, but they have been. What were the companies thinking?"

Hawes began her career providing legal services to Bay Area cannery workers. Beginning in the mid-1970s, however, she noticed more and more of her clients -- most of whom were newly arrived immigrants -- taking jobs in electronics assembly. With a few colleagues, Hawes started the Electronics Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, whose first major effort was the Campaign to Ban TCE -- a recognized carcinogen often referred to as "trike" and better known, these days, as the solvent suspected of causing the clusters of leukemia in "A Civil Action."

Today, Hawes is lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the lawsuits against IBM and its chemical suppliers. The conference room at Alexander, Hawes and Audet overlooks St. James Park in downtown San Jose, where in the early 1930s the Agricultural Workers Industrial League organized massive labor rallies on behalf of striking workers from the Santa Clara canneries.

"There's so many ways in which the existing set of regulations [controlling workplace exposures to chemicals] doesn't begin to get the job done," Hawes says. "Testing is at a minimum for [chemical] mixtures, even though the reality for all workers is that they're working in a mixed-chemical environment, both because the individual products are mixtures and because they're using several chemical products at once. Our whole means of trying to regulate the [workplace] environment is so far behind that fact."

While Hawes concedes that the equipment used to detect airborne organic contaminants in fabrication areas has greatly improved over the years, she points out that such systems function primarily as protection against acute hazards, such as gas leaks. They are not intended to monitor the workplace environment for low-level chemical exposures under OSHA's permissible exposure levels.

As documented in Bill Moyers' investigation of the chemical industry, and summarized by environmental advocacy group Coming Clean, of the 2,800 chemicals produced in volumes of 1 million pounds per year or more, 43 percent lack basic toxicity testing, including tests for carcinogenicity, reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity and immune system toxicity. Only 7 percent of these so-called high-production volume chemicals have a complete set of preliminary toxicity evaluations, or "screening level data." Even if these tests indicate a problem, this is not enough to ban occupational use of the compound, often at exposure levels far greater than those considered hazardous when found in the natural environment.

"There are powerful historical reasons for these disparities," says Sandra Steingraber, author of "Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment." "First of all, I think there's a misconception in the minds of a lot of folks that the so-called permissible exposure levels [for synthetic chemicals] are completely science-driven -- that scientists go out and test these chemicals for all their possible toxic effects, and then agree on a safe threshold level, and that threshold level protects everyone equally under the law. That's not how our regulatory system actually works."

She explains that different branches of the government, such as the EPA, Food and Drug Administration and OSHA, are responsible for setting threshold limits in different sectors of society. Workplace exposures are governed by OSHA, and ambient -- or background -- contamination levels that we might all be exposed to fall under the jurisdiction of the EPA. It turns out that OSHA, as a rule, regulates much more loosely than the EPA does.

Steingraber credits the stronger unions of the first half of the 20th century with pushing through safer exposure levels and monitoring equipment for the first wave of industrial chemicals, most of which got their start in the 19th century.

"Unfortunately, what's happened in the last half-century is that you saw this explosion of synthetic chemicals right after World War II, when the chlorinated solvents really came in big time. At the same time, you had this waning of union power, and so workers lost a lot of ground" in protecting themselves against workplace exposures.

That sentiment is shared by Hawes, who suggests posting warnings in places of employment that would not only notify employees if they were being exposed to concentrations of hazardous chemicals but would state that it is legal to expose the worker to concentrations many, many times greater than what the state of California has determined to cause one excess cancer per 100,000 people. "That may make a difference, and make people begin to grasp the total double standard between what happens in the workplace and what happens outside."

Will warning labels be enough? Or is it time for corporations to start factoring in the potential dangers of working at the cutting edge into employee compensation? Since employers simply cannot say, with certainty, that working with constantly changing combinations of complex organic compounds is safe, shouldn't they be telling that to workers and start offering them hazard pay?

But even if activists are successful in requiring that businesses come clean with their workers, how can chip making, and the computer economy generally, realistically be expected to continue without necessarily putting workers at risk? We cannot expect to discover, in one fell swoop, an entire chemistry set of nontoxic alternatives for the toxic metals, solvents, resins, gases, plasmas and acids still required to make computer chips. And yet, the world economy is increasingly dependent on those chips.

Steingraber is optimistic, looking back at the example of the pesticide DDT for encouragement. "Whole books were authored on how if we banned DDT, agriculture would wither on the vine, and yet we've figured out better, safer ways to do things. I think when workers stand up and say, 'Enough already, we're not going to make computers possible on the backs of our health, and die -- we need to find a better way of doing this,' human ingenuity and innovation will come through, and suddenly we'll find better ways."

There are researchers making genuine progress on low-impact ways to manufacture chips. One of the more prominent is Fahrang Shadman, director of the Engineering Research Center for Environmentally Benign Semiconductor Manufacturing at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Funded by the National Science Foundation and the Semiconductor Research Council, Shadman and his team of over 100 Ph.D.s and graduate students and approximately 30 faculty members from a dozen academic disciplines have done some amazing work in just half a decade. They have replaced the spin coating process -- in which organic solvents are often used to deposit thin films on the wafer surface -- with a totally "dry" process that deposits these films "without any solvents whatsoever."

Already, they have substantially reduced the need for photoresist -- possibly the most critical and toxic formulation in chip making -- by developing chemistries in which certain films are directly imprinted on a chip. They've created radical new ways of reusing and reducing the need for water, traditionally one of the largest resource drains of fabrication plants -- and a reason for the semiconductor industry's tense relations with the water-poor regions of the Southwest, whose aquifers it has not only poisoned but consumed.

"We are not sitting here trying to figure out how to meet the regulations," Shadman says. "We are trying to revolutionize certain aspects of semiconductor manufacturing. Environmental issues, after all, are international, and the semiconductor industry is an international industry. It is truly global. And yet there is no [research center] anywhere in the world with this kind of vision."

That vision is devoted to the research and transfer of radically new chip-making technologies, developed according to a project philosophy called "Design for Environment." "What this means is that we're looking at the environment in the same way we would at other manufacturing factors, like cost. Why is it that we have to lower cost? Because cost is a factor. Why is it that we have to improve performance? Because performance is a factor. So we put environmental impact exactly in the same category, and the environmental motivation becomes a driver for new technology."

Environmental motivation of a different kind is being shown by the semiconductor industry with respect to the cancer question. In November 1999, as the number of plaintiffs was beginning to multiply in various lawsuits, the SIA announced the formation of a Science Advisory Committee "to review existing data on potential cancer health risks, if any, within the U.S. semiconductor manufacturing industry." SIA president George Scalise prefaced the announcement with a carefully worded disclaimer: "While we do not believe there is credible evidence of increased risk of cancer associated with working in the semiconductor industry, we believe it will be useful to assess the existing data to determine whether more extensive evaluation is warranted."

The recommendation of the Science Advisory Committee is due early next year. According to Dr. Mark Cullen, professor of medicine and public health at Yale University School of Medicine and one of the six expert scientists picked for the current panel, "This represents what I would consider to be, as a professional in the field, a very positive evolution in the industry over the decade-plus that I've been involved. I take at face value their serious interest in wanting to know where they are and what they need to do in order to do the right thing."

Even if the semiconductor industry and other high-tech giants that manufacture devices in clean rooms are finally taking the problem seriously, a hard look at Silicon Valley today, with its mercury-infested streams, poisoned aquifers and rising rates of breast cancer, still doesn't encourage hope for the future. What new brew is bubbling up at the valley's biotech start-ups? What new untested mix of chemicals is set to spill on a clean-room worker's arms and legs?

Silicon Valley is full of oft-repeated myths that are proud testaments to the region's technological prowess and entrepreneurial spirit. The garage in which Hewlett and Packard founded one of the most successful high-tech companies of the 20th century, the Homebrew Computing Club's prowess in bringing personal computers to the people, the Apples and Suns and Netscapes and Yahoos -- they're all examples of the new economy, of the wondrous computer revolution. But rarely do the mythmakers take a close look at the costs of such progress. Rarely do they contemplate the vicious cycle at work: The faster the technological advancement, the harder it is for public health experts to keep up with the potential new health hazards posed by those innovative new processes.

Driving through Silicon Valley today, with its nondescript office flats and cookie-cutter suburbs, it's easy to focus only on the genuinely impressive feats of its engineers and entrepreneurs, and easy to miss the more subterranean changes wrought by those achievements.

But if you step out of the clean room at IBM'S Cottle Road disk drive manufacturing plant and into the lunchtime sunlight, returning to Blossom Hill Road as it crosses over Monterey Expressway (forming the eastern border of the IBM contamination plume as it extends three miles northwest toward Coyote Creek), you'll reach the southern on-ramp to Highway 101. The next exit will drop you into the neighborhood of Los Paseos, just a few blocks from the former site of a Fairchild Semiconductor fabrication plant at the eastern base of the Santa Teresa Hills.

That plant is where a failed gauge allowed an underground storage tank to overflow, causing an estimated 40,000 gallons of organic solvents to seep through the fiberglass liners and into the underlying aquifer. Less than 2,000 feet away was Great Oaks Well No. 13, which supplied the drinking water that may have resulted in a surge of miscarriages and birth defects in the residents of Los Paseos.

Fairchild, of course, is the prototypical chip maker of Silicon Valley, founded in 1957 by the so-called traitorous eight from William Shockley's failed start-up, two of whom -- Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce -- would later found Intel, today the largest chip maker in the world and the company tied for the most Silicon Valley Superfund sites to its name. According to legend, Fairchild sold its first batch of transistors to IBM at $150 apiece. Many of Silicon Valley's biggest stars can trace their ancestry back to Fairchild.

The site is now occupied by a Shell filling station. If you pass the station and continue up into the Santa Teresa Hills, you won't get far before hitting another IBM checkpoint. It's the east entrance to the IBM Almaden Research Center, on whose several hundred acres of orchard and live oak Big Blue's San Jose research director is promoting something called "pervasive computing." If you listen hard at that checkpoint, with some imagination you will hear the far-off sound of Alamitos Creek, flowing down on the other side of the mountain into the most mercury-contaminated river basin in the nation.

The gold rush that launched that mercury madness birthed modern California. The silicon boom, in turn, fuels today's global economy. Somewhere in Sunnyvale or Mountain View there is, perhaps, an as-yet-unknown biotech start-up ready to unleash yet another wave of world-transforming change.

Future revolutions are inevitable. But the lesson of the impact of the semiconductor industry on its workers is also inescapable: Nothing comes without a price.

By Jim Fisher

Jim Fisher was manager of IT support at Salon from 1999 to 2004.

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