to the Valley
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 Id 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 dont really analyze that
this stuff is making you sick, the 56 year-old says today. You
just dont 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. Its 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 shed 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 companys 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 its
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 Californias Santa Clara Valley,
an area that was little more than farm country. In 1943, International
Business Machine Corporation (IBM) moved to Californias 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
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
I felt angry at first, says Varela. But mostly I just
feel bad for the people who work there today because theyre not
aware of whats 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.
Youd 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, Shells 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.
Its 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. Its
the little things that go, that you just realize you cant do anymore,
he says. Cardosos 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 wasnt 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 Ive 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 its
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,
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 whats 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 worlds 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 isnt 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 industrys 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 IBMs 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 populations.
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.
Its one thing to have a cut-off finger or a broken leg and
another to be suffering from breathing problems because of a chemical
youre 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 isnt 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. Thats why were taking a proactive
approach in this matter. Results of the study have yet to be made
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.
Youre looking at an industry so important to the economy of
the world that its putting the safety and health of workers as second
priority, says La Dou.
Dr. David Wegman, head of the SIAs research panel, did not return
phone calls requesting comment on the study.
For many in Silicon Valleys working class, clean room manufacturing
jobs are the only kind of work they have known, and may be all thats
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 its 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 publics attention to the issue.
My son, daughter, and granddaughter all work for the industry, so
of course Im worried, says a plaintiff who did not wish to
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 its 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