Fall/ Winter 2001

• Karina Ioffee

The Clean Room Paradox
The clean industry may be deadly for high-tech workers


Welcome to the Valley

"You keep on living your life and you don't analyze that this stuff is making you sick. I know of ten women who worked with me who are no longer here. It's more than just a coincidence." --Armida Mesa, diagnosed with breast cancer in 1985.  Photo, Paul Myers, El Andar.

For Armida Mesa, getting a job at IBM was a dream come true.

“I thought I’d be taken care of for life,” says Mesa, who was proud to be on the payroll of one of the leaders of the electronics industry, a manufacturer of disk drives, software, and computer chips. Then in 1985, after working for the company for nearly twenty years, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In the “clean room,” Mesa was in frequent contact with chemicals such as isopropyl alcohol and epichlorophydrin, a known carcinogen.

“You keep on living your life and you don’t really analyze that this stuff is making you sick,” the 56 year-old says today. “You just don’t think about it.”

Mesa says that many of the women she worked with in the clean rooms are dead, gone before their time. “I alone know of ten women who worked with me who are no longer here. It’s more than just a coincidence.” Mesa remembers being called in for a medical checkup with blood work every “once in a while.” But when she asked what she was being tested for, she was told it was routine procedure, done only to “make sure you were in good health.” If there was a problem she says company doctors told her she’d be notofied; otherwise, everything was okay. Mesa asked no further, confident that “Big Blue” was taking care of her.

Now she is one of fifty clean room workers taking part in a lawsuit accusing IBM and other high-tech companies of “withholding vital information that workers could and would have used to protect” themselves. The suit, filed by San José attorneys Amanda Hawes and Richard Alexander, also targets suppliers of chemicals used in the industry — from freon and xylene to acetone and arsenic — including Shell, Eastman Kodak, and Dupont Corporation. “They knew what they were exposing them to,” says Hawes, “but chose to not do anything about it.”

IBM has been quick to contest the allegations, and claims the lawsuit is without merit. “Our company’s clean room practices involving chemicals meet or exceed all government standards and regulations,” IBM spokeswoman Carol J. Makovich told el Andar. “And we are constantly working to improve these processes.”

The semiconductor industry has released statements proclaiming itself “one of the safest industries with the lowest rate of work-related injuries and illnesses.” Yet many of the statistics cited are based on acute, specific injuries, such as breaking a leg or pulling a muscle — not chronic illnesses such as cancer, which can take years to appear.

A Mighty Industry
The semiconductor industry employs more than 280,000 people worldwide and produces profits on par with the GNPs of small countries. But it’s relatively new, dating back to the 40s and 50s, when the federal government invested heavily in ferro-silicon, plastics, and the defense industry — all in the name of progress in California’s Santa Clara Valley, an area that was little more than farm country. In 1943, International Business Machine Corporation (IBM) moved to California’s Santa Clara Valley, followed by Hewlett and Packard in 1947. Those were the first steps in what would become an unimaginably profitable and life-changing marathon towards the future. Jobs were created by the thousands and migrants from all over the US came to seek out their slice of the American dream. By the early sixties, an estimated eight to ten new residents settled in Santa Clara County for each industrial job created by the new electronics industry.

Olivia Varela was one of these people. A divorced mother of three, in 1964 she moved from El Paso, Texas, looking to start a new life for herself and her kids. After a quick course at the Institute of Technology, Varela joined the growing ranks of clean room workers who soaked, x-rayed, and etched materials to create computer chips that would go on to become disk drives in computers. After working at National Semiconductor for over a decade, a routine check-up found a lump in her breast, something Varela says none of the women in her family have had.

Although today Varela describes her work at National Semiconductor as “real easy,” she also admits that she came in regular contact with substances containing octyl and nonyl phenol, as well as bisphenol-based epoxies. Both octyl and nonyl phenol contain surfactants which are hazardous to human reproductive health and overall endocrine balance and proper functioning.

“I felt angry at first,” says Varela. “But mostly I just feel bad for the people who work there today because they’re not aware of what’s going on.”

In the US, some 45,000 people work in the semiconductor field, mostly in manufacturing jobs that put them in close contact with dangerous chemicals. According to data collected by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, many of these workers who grease the wheels of the high-tech machine are minorities, and as many as sixty percent of them are women. They are predominantly Asians and Latinos who occupy the lowest-paying brackets of their companies. While the typical manager receives slightly over $52,000 annually and software engineers close to $125,000, the average salary for a Latina employed in electronics manufacturing is only $23,000.

In better days of the high-tech economy, before the wave of layoffs and bankruptcies hit, it was said that 64 new millionaires were created in Silicon Valley every day. But for many operatives in the clean rooms, salaries stayed the same or were even reduced while rents increased with the growing demand for housing. Many workers have found themselves caught in the net of a giant industry that was supposed to make life easier, yet seldom did.

“The racial gradient is pretty clear,” says Lenny Siegel, former director of the Pacific Studies Center, a Mountain View-based organization that examines quality of life issues in the area.

On The Front Lines
El Andar spoke with workers who told us of haphazard conditions and careless practices that often went unnoticed at IBM and other electronics facilities.

“We wore no gloves and no eyewear,” says Betty White, a woman from Nicaragua who worked for Bell Micro Products, an electronics company that is not part of the lawsuit.

“The only things we had were a robe to protect the disk drive and a cord underneath our shoes to not discharge it.” White complained to her supervisors about the bad ventilation on multiple occasions, but in all the time she was there, she says nothing changed. “They made promises,” she says today, “but they never delivered them.”
Many of the IBM workers said they wore “bunny suits,” which covered them from head to toe in the clean room, but the chemicals still seeped through the suits and into their skin.

Armida Mesa, one of the plaintiffs against IBM, recalls the early days at the plant, when workers’ latex gloves melted on contact with chemicals. “You’d put them on and they would just get sticky,” she says. “So you had no choice but to reach in and pull the parts out with your hands.” Mesa also worked with xylene and epoxy resins, provided to IBM by Shell, for use in disk drive coating formulations.

According to the lawsuit, Shell’s own staff was aware that local exhaust ventilations were inadequate in expelling the chemical and “must never be used where workers would have any cause to lean over an operation such as an open tank,” — which is precisely what Mesa says her job required of her.

Keeping Their Memory Alive
Three of the workers who were originally part of the clean room lawsuit in San Jose are no longer here to tell their stories. Others died before the suit began. Family members carry on their legacy and struggle to find answers. When his wife was thirty-four years old, Dan Starks lost her to breast cancer that he insists was caused by her work in an IBM clean room. Now, he must raise their three kids alone.

“It’s difficult beyond your imagination,” says Starks. Greg Gómez is another widower, whose wife Joanne died when she was thirty-three years. Today, Gómez is still trying to find words to explain to his seven year-old son, Chris, why his mother is not there.

While life must necessarily go on, anger and resentment are part of the collective feelings for many in the group.

“I trusted IBM,” says Ruben Cardoso, 47, who spent thirteen years in an IBM clean-room and has multiple sclerosis. “It’s the little things that go, that you just realize you can’t do anymore,” he says. Cardoso’s condition has deteriorated to the point where he cannot work, and he relies on a cane to get around. He often forgets things, is constantly tired, and has lost most of the strength on the left side of his body.

Although he receives social security, he says he has yet to see a penny for medical expenses from IBM. “My whole life it was ‘give me, give me, give me’ from the company. But when I wasn’t needed anymore, I was just put out to pasture.”

Many of the people interviewed for the series expressed the same thoughts, again and again: their original commitment to their companies and the disappointment they feel today.

“Everybody wants to grow old with respect and dignity,” says Cardoso, “but I’ve already lost some of that.” Armida Mesa, who spent twenty-four years working for IBM, agrees. “They used to tell you that respect for the individual was the most important thing,” she says. “But later on, when you got sick, you find out that it’s not like that at all.” Shortly after she had her masectomy, Mesa was asked to either step down or leave. Although IBM has said that these were “company-wide policies,” Mesa feels it was their attempt to get her to leave quietly, before her illness progressed.

The Need for Research

According to the American Cancer Society, some 553,400 Americans will die from cancer in 2001. In Santa Clara County alone, 6,510 are expected to be diagnosed with the disease and 2,265 to die from it. But narrowing down the causes of cancer is an almost-impossible task because there are so many factors associated with it — including family history, lifestyle, even stress.

“To blame everything on the high-tech industry is pure hysteria,” says Walter S. Newman Jr., a San José-based physician specializing in occupational medicine. “To understand what’s going on you need to look at objective scientific data. You need to look at what kind of chemicals they are exposed to in the workplace and then measure their effects on the body. Then, if A matches B, you look for ways to work with the results. But to blame every cancer, every disorder, every sickness on work is just ludicrous.”

Yet the kind of “scientific data” Newman refers to simply do not exist. Why? Because the industry still has not cooperated in a comprehensive study of cancer and clean room employees. In 1997, federal and state agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) along with environmental and community activists, planned to launch a massive health study that would begin to settle the debate over cancer. The EPA put in $100,000 and discussions began, involving bigwigs such as IBM, Intel, and National Semiconductor. But at the last minute, the industry backed out, citing flaws in the research methods and costs that would exceed the budget. Without industry cooperation, there can be no study.

Joseph La Dou feels frustrated. One of the world’s leading researchers on cancer in the electronics and semiconductor industries, La Dou heads the International Center for Occupational Medicine at the University of California San Francisco.

“There isn’t a single research effort going on anywhere in the world” investigating links between work in the semiconductor industry and cancer, he says. According to La Dou, twenty percent of all cancers are caused by work-related exposure, a number he deduces by comparing overall cancer rates to data provided by Occupational Safety and Health Agency and the Department of Labor Statistics. But these are mere estimates, which in all likelihood will not hold in a court of law.

“We would need at least 100,000 workers to do a complete cancer study,” he says. “But we cannot do it without the industry’s help.”

There have been a few, narrowly-focused studies sponsored by the industry.

In 1996, IBM funded an outside study on brain tumors among its workers. The researchers’ data came from IBM’s secret “mortality files,” a database that tracked causes of death of 10,331 IBM workers. More than 149 of them died of relatively rare brain cancer, a percentage estimated as two-and-a-half times greater than the general population’s.
The study, conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, looked at possible links between brain tumors and those working with video display monitors (VDTs), the display screens found in every computer. The researchers found no meaningful connection between the two.

The company followed the report with an internal memo to employees, which el Andar has obtained, stating that there was no link between any workplace factors at IBM and brain cancer. This memo clearly re-wrote the conclusion of the original study, which only focused on VDTs. Dr. Colleen Beall, the lead researcher in the Department of Epidemiology who worked on the study, confirmed that only one small part of IBM operations had been looked at. “The study was in no way specific enough to make that conclusion,” says Beall. “It did not, for example look at power-supply units, disk storage devices or tape drives.”
Such glossing over of scientific data is not new to IBM. In another company management letter obtained by el Andar, IBM gives advice to its managers on how to “spin” disturbing new information about TNF, a possible carcinogen, in its copiers.

Another problem is that doctors are unfamiliar with many work-related conditions, especially if they are chronic.
“It’s one thing to have a cut-off finger or a broken leg and another to be suffering from breathing problems because of a chemical you’re exposed to every day,” says Jim Cone, chief of occupational health at the California Department of Health. In medical school, only six hours is dedicated to toxic-related sickness, not enough for students to identify and understand an illness. “There isn’t a lot of practice until they are faced with an actual patient,” says Cone.

An SIA scientist says that a research effort has just been completed, sponsored by the Semiconductor Industry Association (or SIA, a consortium of high-tech companies) which aimed to conduct a “thorough investigation” of hundreds of the most commonly used chemicals in the field. According to Molly Tuttle, a spokeswoman for the SIA, “We are concerned about the [cancer] allegations. That’s why we’re taking a proactive approach in this matter.” Results of the study have yet to be made public.

But for industry watchdogs, warnings are already sounding. Instead of testing workers in clean rooms, as La Dou and others suggest, the independent review board is relying solely on prior studies and reports.

“You’re looking at an industry so important to the economy of the world that it’s putting the safety and health of workers as second priority,” says La Dou.

Dr. David Wegman, head of the SIA’s research panel, did not return phone calls requesting comment on the study.

The Future
For many in Silicon Valley’s working class, clean room manufacturing jobs are the only kind of work they have known, and may be all that’s available in these times of a shrinking high-tech economy. Some of the workers el Andar spoke with still have relatives employed at IBM, National Semiconductor and other high-tech manufacturing companies. The workers say that although they know the dangers first hand, they cannot stop their loved ones from working for one simple reason — it’s the only means of income they have.

Even if they win a settlement, it can take months, if not years, before plaintiffs such as Olivia Varela, Armida Mesa, Ruben Cardoso and others receive any sort of compensation. But they hope to win the satisfaction of calling the public’s attention to the issue.

“My son, daughter, and granddaughter all work for the industry, so of course I’m worried,” says a plaintiff who did not wish to be identified.

“I would like companies to warn their workers and be more open,” says Carmen Navarro, who lost her mother, Alice, to breast cancer in 1989. “They should tell their employees of the dangers so they can make their own choices.”

The employees’ fight is far from over. The Silicon Valley complaint, begun in 1998, has yet to go to trial. And it may never — a settlement is likely — it’s quicker and keeps trade secrets tightly locked in the most interior chambers of the industry.

The San Jose lawsuit is one of several plaguing IBM facilities over the past few years. The company settled out of court in January 2001 in East Fish Kill, New York, where a woman who worked with freon, alcohol, and metals throughout her pregnancy gave birth to a daughter with severe damage to her brain and cranium. In a separate incident, IBM settled out of court in a case concerning a child who was diagnosed with hydrosephyly (an imbalance of cerebral spinal fluid) and who is now legally blind. IBM has already paid out close to $2 billion to plaintiffs in the US, and it may shell out even more in the next few years.
“Settlements in all the countries IBM has operations could have drastic implications for the future of the company,” says La Dou.

For now, without more scientific research, the courts may be the only place where the public can try to determine whether clean rooms in the “clean industry” are really safe or not.

© 2001-2002 El Andar Magazine


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