Toxic Technology

The High-Tech Industry is Poisonous to Low-Wage Immigrant Workers

In February 2000, Garrett Brown of California’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration (Cal-OSHA) found that a high-tech plant in Fremont, California was poisoning its workers with arsenic. Brown learned that American Xtal Technology (AXT), while filling semiconductor contracts for the Department of Defense and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), had four times as much arsenic floating around the plant as allowed by law.

The computer chips—or semiconductors—most Americans are familiar with are built on a tiny slab of silicon, which is basically processed sand. AXT’s chips were built on gallium arsenide, which works better in radiation-intensive applications. AXT cooked gallium and arsenic into an ingot that was then sliced thin for further processing.

But slicing anything creates dust. When gallium arsenide dust enters the human system, Brown explains, the elements separate. Gallium is inert and harmless. Arsenic is both toxic and a confirmed human carcinogen.

The ingot slicers wore smocks, but they had no special breathing gear despite poor ventilation. The facility offered no showers for them, as required by law. "So these guys were taking this stuff home to their families," says Brown.

Many industry observers say the AXT case is far outside the industry norm in terms of the company’s stark flouting of worker-protection laws. But the workers themselves are typical of the people who take the dangerous, low-wage jobs that help the industry fight to perpetually lower costs: They were "about 98 percent immigrant, mostly monolingual Chinese speakers right off the boat," says Brown. "This is an extraordinarily vulnerable work force who are completely unaware of the health hazards, unaware of their legal rights because they’re not from this country, and unable to discuss what was going on because they didn’t speak the language."

Both activists and federal officials say the people who work at the low-wage, potentially toxic or carcinogenic semiconductor jobs are typically minorities, women or immigrants with little, if any, English skills. Increasingly, the dirtiest jobs are moving overseas to places like China or Malaysia, where environmental and worker-protection laws are weaker.

In the historic heart of computer country, Ted Smith of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition points out that environmental justice issues dog all phases of a computer’s life. The raw materials are mined by low-wage workers. The people who make the chips are exposed to various solvents and potentially to scores of toxic gasses and materials. Soldering the chips to the printed circuit board exposes workers to lead. Computers treated with certain flame retardants may be harming the health of those who use them. And as landfills face an onslaught of computers past their prime, they will hold tons of toxic metals like lead, cadmium and mercury.

"At almost every stop on this life cycle, the actual people who are the most affected—whether it’s the workers or the people living in the surrounding communities—are people of color, low-income people and/or women," he says.

The now-omnipresent silicon-based computer chip just looks benign. Because sand doesn’t conduct electricity, various solvent-intensive processes are used to create tiny grooves into which workers deposit conductive materials, including arsenic, ion by ion. This work is done in "clean rooms" where ventilation is highly controlled to keep down dust and remove anything that might contaminate the sensitive chips. Smith says the clean rooms protect the chips, but seal toxic elements in with the workers.

Several studies have found increased rates of spontaneous abortion and cancer among the workers in semiconductor plants. Three studies, done at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester, the University of California at Davis and Johns Hopkins found that the rate of spontaneous abortions increase 50 to 100 percent among clean-room workers.

A 2001 study by the British government looked at cancer rates among workers at a plant in Scotland owned by U.S.-led National Semiconductor. Researchers looked at the plant’s entire staff—not just the 25 percent who actually work with the chemicals that would be expected to skew the results. Nevertheless, the small study found a statistically significant rise in cancer rate.

That study "suggests that the increase in the rate of cancer may be greater than the rate of increase in spontaneous abortion," explains Dr. Joe LaDou, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California in San Francisco. "For young people, the spontaneous abortion rate is much higher than cancer. These are young, unskilled women who shouldn’t have a high cancer rate at all."

It’s impossible to compare these findings with other industries, because no comparable data are available. In many ways, the industry is remarkably green. It moved quickly to address its leaking underground storage tanks, footing the bill for cleanup, remediation and continued Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversight. When an inconclusive study pointed to potential problems with one common solvent, the industry voluntarily reduced or eliminated its use.

"If you measure an industry by its compliance with the law, this industry is going to get one of the highest ratings, because it does," says Dave Jones, based in the EPA’s San Francisco office. But, he adds, the industry does use many chemicals that are of concern. Cal-OSHA rarely gets worker complaints about the industry, which could mean two things according to Ralph Allen, manager of the Cal-OSHA district that includes Silicon Valley: "The first possibility is that all the people are happy and not exposed to anything and the employer keeps them informed of their risk. Or they’re all scared to death of calling us because they’re afraid of getting fired. I think it’s mostly the first one."

"My subjective view is that the norm is fairly few violations and a fairly good workplace," adds Allen. "The nature of the "clean room" is to prevent contamination, and that generally prevents employees from being overexposed to any chemical."

Back in Fremont, Cal-OSHA cited AXT on 41 counts and issued a $313,000 fine. The county’s district attorney began pursuing criminal charges against the company and its officers. After an intense series of negotiations in early 2001, AXT dropped its appeal, accepting all charges and a $198,000 fine. A criminal conviction would have disqualified the company from lucrative federal contracts.

Inside the plant, some of the problems were fixed. But, says Brown, "The worst hazards were "controlled" by shipping the work to AXT’s Beijing plant in the fall of 2000." At least in Beijing the workers are more likely to speak the language.