Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

American Chipmakers Had a Toxic Problem. Then They Outsourced It

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So far as I can tell, modern corporations care only about profit and have thrown overboard moral and ethical concerns and often legal ones as well—for example, ignoring and then hiding the dangers of Takata airbags or the GM ignition switch problem, despite both problems causing deaths. The deaths were, perhaps, regrettable to the companies, but not nearly so regrettable as would be a dip in profits.

Cam Simpson writes in Bloomberg Businessweek about a toxic chemical that companies deemed too dangerous for their US employees, but were happy for workers in other countries to be exposed to (probably because the companies felt that could fend off class-action lawsuits from abroad). The ethics of that stance? Piffle, who cares?, say the companies.

Simpson writes:

Results in epidemiology often are equivocal, and money can cloud science (see: tobacco companies vs. cancer researchers). Clear-cut cases are rare. Yet just such a case showed up one day in 1984 in the office of Harris Pastides, a recently appointed associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

A graduate student named James Stewart, who was working his way through school as a health and safety officer at Digital Equipment Corp., told Pastides there had been a number of miscarriages at the company’s semiconductor plant in nearby Hudson, Mass. Women, especially of childbearing age, filled an estimated 68 percent of the U.S. tech industry’s production jobs, and Stewart knew something few outsiders did: Making computer chips involved hundreds of chemicals. The women on the production line worked in so-called cleanrooms and wore protective suits, but that was for the chips’ protection, not theirs. The women were exposed to, and in some cases directly touched, chemicals that included reproductive toxins, mutagens, and carcinogens. Reproductive dangers are among the most serious concerns in occupational health, because workers’ unborn children can suffer birth defects or childhood diseases, and also because reproductive issues can be sentinels for disorders, especially cancer, that don’t show up in the workers themselves until long after exposure.

Digital Equipment agreed to pay for a study, and Pastides, an expert in disease clusters, designed and conducted it. Data collection was finished in late 1986, and the results were shocking: Women at the plant had miscarriages at twice the expected rate. In November, the company disclosed the findings to employees and the Semiconductor Industry Association, a trade group, and then went public. Pastides and his colleagues were heralded as heroes by some and vilified by others, especially in the industry.

SIA, representing International Business Machines Corp., Intel Corp., and about a dozen other top technology companies, established a task force, and its experts flew to Windsor Locks, Conn., to meet Pastides at a hotel near Bradley International Airport. It was Super Bowl Sunday, January 1987. “That was a day I remember being at a tribunal,” Pastides says. The atmosphere “bordered on hostility. I remember being shellshocked.” Soon after the meeting the panel formally concluded that the study contained “significant deficiencies,” according to internal SIA records. Nevertheless, facing public pressure, SIA’s member companies agreed to fund more research.

Scientists from the University of California at Davis designed one of the biggest worker-health studies in history, involving 14 SIA companies, 42 plants, and 50,000 employees. IBM opted out, hiring Johns Hopkins University to study its plants, because IBM executives said their facilities were safer than the others, recalls Adolfo Correa, one of the lead Johns Hopkins scientists.

In epidemiology, follow-up studies usually get bigger and tougher, and for that reason they often contradict one another. But by December 1992, something rare had happened. All three studies—all paid for by the industry—showed similar results: roughly a doubling of the rate of miscarriages for thousands of potentially exposed women. This time the industry reacted quickly. SIA pointed to a family of toxic chemicals widely used in chipmaking as the likely cause and declared that its companies would accelerate efforts to phase them out. IBM went further: It pledged to rid its global chip production of them by 1995.

Pastides felt vindicated. More than that, he considered the entire episode one of the greatest successes in public-health history, as do others. Despite industry skepticism, three scientific studies led to changes that helped generations of women. “That’s almost a fairy tale in public health,” Pastides says.

Two decades later, the ending to the story looks like a different kind of tale. As semiconductor production shifted to less expensive countries, the industry’s promised fixes do not appear to have made the same journey, at least not in full. Confidential data reviewed by Bloomberg Businessweek show that thousands of women and their unborn children continued to face potential exposure to the same toxins until at least 2015. Some are probably still being exposed today. Separate evidence shows the same reproductive-health effects also persisted across the decades.

The risks are exacerbated by secrecy—the industry may be using toxins that still haven’t been disclosed. This is the price paid by generations of women making the devices at the heart of the global economy.

In 2010 a South Korean physician named Kim Myoung-hee left her assistant professorship at a medical school to head a small research institute in Seoul. For Kim, who’s also an epidemiologist, it was a chance to spend more time on the public-health research she’d embraced as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard five years earlier.

In her new post, a series of cancer cases in South Korea’s microelectronics industry drew her interest, including one particular episode that had caught the public eye: Two young women working side-by-side at the same Samsung Electronics workstation and using the same chemicals contracted the same aggressive form of leukemia. The disease kills only 3 out of every 100,000 South Koreans each year, but these young co-workers died within eight months of each other. And their disease was among those most clearly tied to carcinogens. Activists discovered more cases at Samsung and other microelectronics companies, mostly among young women. Industry executives denied any link.

Kim began compiling and analyzing occupational-health studies about semiconductor workers worldwide, a body of work that had drawn little attention in South Korea despite the industry’s importance there. She found 40 different works published by 2010, and virtually every one mentioned exposure to toxic chemicals. “I had no idea that this is a chemical industry, not the electronics industry,” she says.

Physics drives the design of microchips, but their production is mostly about chemistry. In a basic sense, chemicals and light combine to photographically print circuits onto silicon wafers. Gordon Moore, a founder of Intel and a major figure in the creation of the modern chip in 1960, is a chemist. He worked closely on the printing process with a physicist named Jay Last. “We were putting into industrial production a lot of really nasty chemicals,” Last said in an interview he did with Moore for an oral history project of the Chemical Heritage Foundation. “There was just no knowledge of these things, and we were pouring stuff down into the city sewer system.”

Moore recalled how, years later, when workers dug up the pipes beneath Intel, they discovered the “bottom was completely eaten out the whole way along, and that was just about the time we really started recognizing how much you had to take care of this.” Authorities would end up designating more Superfund hazardous waste sites in Santa Clara County, the heart of Silicon Valley, than in any other county in the U.S.

As Kim learned in her scientific review, one critical chemical cocktail in the printing process is called a photoresist. It’s a light-sensitive compound that allows circuit patterns to be photographically printed on the chips. Moore and Last suggested in their oral-history interview that the dangers of the chemicals they were using were unknown in 1960, but studies linking photoresist ingredients to dangers dated to the 1930s. The toxic ingredients were called ethylene glycol ethers, or EGEs. They also became key ingredients in solvent mixtures known as strippers, which are used to clean the chips during printing.

Kim could see that Pastides pointed to these same chemicals when he did his study at Digital Equipment, as did the Johns Hopkins scientists working with IBM. The IBM study found miscarriage rates tripled for women who worked specifically with EGEs. Separate studies showed EGEs easily permeated rubber gloves, like water through a net, and that skin absorption was the most dangerous route, leading to exposure rates 500 to 800 times above the level deemed safe. The dangers were so abundantly clear that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1993 formally proposed exposure levels so minute that, practically speaking, companies would have to ban EGEs to comply.

Kim’s study took her through not only all of that research but also the studies done since. Historical reproductive-health studies connected microelectronics production to fatal birth defects in the children of male workers, childhood cancers among the children of female workers, and infertility and prolonged menstrual cycles.

Yet in virtually every study published since the 1990s, Kim read one form or other of the same phrase: The global semiconductor industry had phased out EGEs in the mid-1990s, signaling the end of reproductive-health concerns. The statements made sense. Not only had IBM and other companies publicly announced that the use of EGEs had been discontinued, but the chemicals also had become classified as Category 1 reproductive toxins under international standards, and European regulators had placed them on a list of the most highly toxic chemicals known to science, designating them Substances of Very High Concern.

Still, something nagged at Kim. In focus groups, young South Korean women working in chip plants told Kim’s colleagues it was not uncommon to go months, or even a year, without menstruating. (Some saw these potentially ominous changes to their reproductive systems as blessings, not warnings. It was just easier not to have periods.) As in the U.S., women dominated production jobs in South Korea’s microelectronics industry, which employs more than 120,000 of them, mostly of childbearing age; they’re often recruited right out of high school. Kim and a colleague decided they needed to conduct a new reproductive-health study. They faced a challenge, however, that Pastides and the other U.S. researchers hadn’t, at least on the front end: a lack of industry cooperation.

In 2013 they persuaded a member of South Korea’s parliament to pry loose national health-insurance data. They got five years of physician-reimbursement records through 2012 for women of childbearing age working at plants owned by the country’s three largest microelectronics companies: Samsung, SK Hynix, and LG. Samsung and SK Hynix accounted for the vast majority of women in the study, as the two have long been among the world’s largest chipmakers. The data covered an average of 38,000 women per year. From that number, the researchers looked at the records of those who had gone to doctors for miscarriages.

The results were both undeniable and shocking to Kim, just as they had been for Pastides almost three decades earlier. She found . . .

Continue reading.

If there is a Hell, I would be that many corporate CEOs are languishing there.

This is a textbook example of why governments must closely inspect and regulate businesses: to protect the public, which includes company employees. (Companies obviously have little interest in protecting low-level employees.)

And do read the whole thing. There’s more. Later in the article:

After the outcry in the U.S. in the 1990s, chemical companies said they’d changed the formulations for the photoresists and other products they supplied to chipmakers, including those in Asia. But testing data obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek show that changes weren’t made quickly or, in some cases, completely.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 June 2017 at 2:21 pm

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