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High-tech and Toxic



From Silicon Valley to Malaysia, the high-tech electronics industry is taking its toll on human and environmental health.


As we approach the 21st Century, information and communications technology is clearly becoming the world’s most dominant corporate sector—economically, politically, and socially. The electronics industry, which fuels this powerful engine, is the world’s largest and fastest-growing manufacturing sector. Douglas Andrey, director of information systems and finance of the Semiconductor Industry Association recently said that "because of its growth and size, the chip industry is the pivotal driver of the world economy."1

The highly competitive and innovative electronics industry spans the production of semiconductors, disk drives, circuit boards, consumer electronics, communications devices, and video display equipment. In addition, high-tech electronics manufacturing has led to explosive growth in industries that manufacture the materials and chemicals that supply the assembly plants as well as an increase in the number of companies that treat and dispose of waste generated in the production processes.

Despite economic turmoil in Asia and temporary and cyclical production slow-downs, high-tech manufacturers are projecting a rebound leading to continued demand for semiconductor wafers from which computer chips are cut.

Furthermore, more than 100 semiconductor fabrication facilities, known in the trade as fabs—each costing between $1.5 billion and $4 billion—are in various stages of planning and construction throughout the world, with the Pacific Rim experiencing the greatest growth.2

Demand is being driven by the rapid expansion of the Internet as well as by industry marketing campaigns that promote the latest—often unnecessary—fads and baubles.

The fast-paced competition of the industry makes many high-tech products obsolete within months. Clearly, Intel—which dominates the market for microprocessors —understands that in order to maintain its exponential growth rate, it must continue to create demand for its product. So it came as no surprise when Intel announced in 1997 that it would spend more than $100 million to promote its Pentium II chip and use half the advertising dollars for international campaigns. Nor was anyone surprised by a September 1997 Reuters news story reporting that "even though almost every personal computer maker has to buy computer chips from Intel to make their machines work, Intel and its partners have spent more than $2 billion in the past four years promoting the Pentium brand."3

Intel now controls more than 80 percent of the microprocessor market, is the world leader in microprocessor production, and creates a new product line every six to 18 months to maintain its near monopoly position.

Roots in Silicon Valley

Until a few years ago, semiconductor manufacturing was concentrated in the United States—primarily in Silicon Valley and in the high-tech corridor along Route 128 near Boston—and in a few areas in western Europe and Japan. Today, fabs in the United States are located mainly in California, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Arizona, Virginia, Oregon, Idaho, and Texas.4

With more than 900 fabs worldwide, high-tech manufacturing has expanded to countries throughout Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In each new country, the industry brings to communities and workers its toxic hazards as well as its thirst for natural and economic resources. And within the borders of the United States, the industry has also sought out low-income communities and communities of color, especially in the Southwest.

While most high-tech and research-intensive facilities are located in developed, industrialized countries—especially the United States, western Europe, and Japan—the less advanced and the dirtier and most labor-intensive processes are increasingly being shuffled to underdeveloped countries throughout the global South, where wages are lower, environmental protections laws are less stringent, and enforcement capability is lax even when laws exist, creating a whole system of environmental and economic injustice.

Dirty Business

Electronics manufacturing enjoys the image of a clean, smokestack-free industry with relatively few environmental or occupational health concerns. However, high-tech manufacturing uses thousands of chemicals and is one of the "most chemical-intensive industries ever conceived."5 As global competitiveness increases and the rate of change in the electronics industry escalates, challenges to the environment and workers’ health likewise escalate, and the ability to anticipate and prevent problems declines. Dr. Myron Harrison, a former physician for IBM who has seen firsthand the physical problems in workers exposed to hazardous materials in the workplace, sees profound implications from this fast-paced race for profits:

Professionals associated with semiconductor manufacturing have invariably commented on the rapid rate of change in tools and materials and on the fact that adequate toxicological assessment of chemicals almost never precedes their introduction into manufacturing settings. The pace of change is quickening under the pressure of severe economic competition. As recently as 3-4 years ago, a typical schedule of a new technology from research and development to pilot lines to full manufacturing was 6-8 years. Executives who manage micro-electronic businesses are now demanding the schedule be compressed into a 2-3 year time frame. Engineers are not evaluated nor rewarded on their ability to...understand new or unusual health hazards. This task is the responsibility of health and safety professionals. Unfortunately, the opportunities for the professionals to be involved before these new processes arrive at the manufacturing floor are being diminished by the quickening pace of technologic change.... Any large semiconductor facility uses several thousand chemicals. An attempt to review the toxicology of all these materials is doomed to be superficial and of little value.5

Dr. Harrison’s anxiety is prompted in large part by the business strategy—driven primarily by Intel—of making each new generation of chip technology obsolete as rapidly as possible. As Andrew Grove, the founder of Intel, said at the launching of Intel’s P6 chip: "This is what we do. We eat our own children, and we do it faster and faster...[T]hat’s how we keep our lead."6

Environmental Destruction

The environmental legacy of the electronics industry belies its clean image. The dark side of high-tech manufacturing reveals polluted drinking water, birth defects, water discharges that harm fish and wildlife, high rates of miscarriages among workers, and emerging cancer clusters among workers at older plants.

In 1981, chlorinated solvents held in an underground storage tank at Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation’s facility in South San Jose, California, were found to have leaked out, contaminating the groundwater and drinking water. In the same year, the Los Paseos community identified a cluster of birth defects. Later, in 1985, the California Department of Health Services identified a cluster of birth defects among local residents who had consumed contaminated tap water.7

By 1983, people in the Silicon Valley had become aware that high-tech manufacturing, especially the semiconductor and circuit-board industries, had devastated both the clean reputation of the industry as well as much of the groundwater in Santa Clara County. Silicon Valley, the birthplace of the high-tech electronics revolution, is now home to 29 Superfund sites—more than any other area of the United States. These sites are the product of long-term improper handling of the semiconductor industry’s chemicals, its hazardous waste stream, and especially its underground storage tanks.

It is not widely known that the high-tech electronics industry uses vast amounts of highly toxic materials in the manufacture of its products and heavily depletes natural resources to fuel its global expansion and rapidly changing product lines.

The resources required to process chips are enormous. Consider the Intel Rio Rancho facility in New Mexico, a state-of-the-art fab, which can produce 5,000 eight-inch wafers a week. In one year, that one fab alone could use 832 million cubic feet of bulk gases, 5.72 million cubic feet of hazardous gases, 591 million gallons of deionized (highly purified) water, 5.2 million pounds of chemicals, and 74.1 million kilowatt hours of electrical power. In that same year, it could produce 6.5 million pounds of sodium hydroxide waste, 738 million gallons of waste water, and 1.8 million pounds of hazardous waste.9 The water and energy demands alone for this one fab equal the demand for a mid-size city.10

With nearly 900 fabs in operation, and new fabs slated for construction by the turn of the century, the resources consumed and discharged by this industry are enormous. This rapid increase can be expected to further threaten workers’ health and the environment of the communities in which they live.

But there may be hopeful signs that newly constructed fabrication facilities may not inflict the same kind of environmental degradation that plagues Silicon Valley. The electronics industry has begun to reduce its use of toxics in production, and regulations governing pollution prevention and handling of chemicals are more stringent than they were in the 1970s when the older fabs were first put on line.

Unfortunately, since the high-tech industry moves so fast and the processes, chemicals, and technologies change so rapidly, communities in California, New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona learned their lessons too late and have been left with the toxic legacy of yesterday.

Workers Bear the Brunt

Electronic components are manufactured from a complicated mixture of hundreds of materials. Workers are exposed to corrosive chlorinated substances, photoactive chemicals, chemical strippers, etchants, toxic gases, a variety of acids, solvents, heavy metals, plastics and plastic additives such as isaproponal, acetone, methanol, glycol ethers, xylene, and a host of toxic elements and compounds such as antimony, arsenic, boron, phosphorous and fluoride.11 Potential health risks occur throughout the process from the manufacture of the substrate of the chip material through the assembly and testing steps.

While high-tech workers are provided bunny suits—protective clothing worn over street clothes, including booties, gloves, caps, and sometimes face masks—some worker health and safety advocates claim that these suits are designed more to protect the chip from the worker, than the worker from the potential chemical exposure.

Gauging the Dangers

Toxicity information—including carcinogenicity, reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, and immune system toxicity—is unavailable for more than half of the chemical substances in commercial use.12 The synergistic and additive health effects of these chemical and material mixtures are often unknown, but the industry may be subjecting workers to a massive experiment in low-level exposure to multiple toxics.

In addition, because of rapid changes in technology and materials, and because the industry witholds much information as proprietary to maintain an economic advantage, it has been difficult to fully understand the process of manufacturing computer chips or to institute proper health and safety measures in the industry.13

Microelectronics is considered light manufacturing and causes fewer injuries than heavier manufacturing industries. However, occupational illness occurs at a higher rate among electronics workers, particularly in the semiconductor industry. This high rate of occupational illnesses may result from the widespread use of toxic chemicals that may have additive and synergistic effects. As Joseph LaDou, director of occupational and environmental medicine at San Francisco State University, and his colleague, industrial hygienist Timothy Rohm, have noted, "In California, exposure to toxic materials is twice as likely to be a cause of occupational illness in electronics workers as it is in other manufacturing industries. National data parallel that distressing fact."14

LaDou has also documented that systemic poisoning from exposure to toxic chemicals is three to four times more likely to occur in electronics workers than in workers in other manufacturing industries.15

The evidence is indeed disturbing. Cancer clusters for such diseases as non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas, testicular cancer, advanced uterine and cervical cancers, and brain tumors have been discovered among process engineers and other manufacturing employees at IBM’s facilities in San Jose, California, and Fishkill, New York.

A group of cancer victims and their families have filed suit against IBM and its chemical suppliers at IBM’s San Jose facility alleging the workers were exposed to fatal doses of cancer-causing chemicals for three decades. Another lawsuit pending in New York against IBM since 1996 names as codefendants Union Carbide, Shipley, Hoechst, and other manufacturers of chemicals used by IBM. The case—which involves more than 100 plaintiffs, including the families of 11 people who died from cancer and 16 children of IBM workers claiming birth defects from in utero exposure—attributes a variety of cancers to chemicals used in the semiconductor industry.16

At semiconductor manufacturing facilities in the United States,women workers—many of whom are of child-bearing age—have suffered high rates of miscarriage and are now reporting a startling number of reproductive cancers. Two epidemiological studies conducted at facilities operated by IBM and another chip manufacturer, Digital Equipment Corporation, linked the miscarriages to worker exposure to chemicals used in production, notably ethylene-based glycol ethers.

A third industrywide study sponsored by the Semiconductor Industry Association has likewise found a correlation between exposure to ethylene-based glycol ether chemicals and a high rate of miscarriage. Similar problems are emerging at high-tech centers around the globe. For example, a recent story in the Wall Street Journal exposed a cancer cluster among high-tech workers at National Semiconductor’s plant in Silicon Glen, Scotland.17

While epidemiological studies have exposed a possible link between chemical exposure and higher rates of miscarriage than in the rest of the population, the industry has resisted efforts, supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Department of Health, to conduct a full-scale health evaluation of abnormalities in the offspring of workers and cancer rates among workers.

In addition, the risks of exposure to workers throughout the entire production chain—from the mining of raw materials to the manufacture of chemicals, fabrication of components, handling of waste products, and disposal of electronic equipment—have not been estimated and need to be examined. This is especially urgent because the rapid rate of change in technology results in the introduction and use of hundreds of new chemicals that toxicologists and environmental health and safety experts cannot adequately evaluate.

Worker Rights

High-tech manufacturing has an unwritten, yet widely recognized, policy of hiring a "cheap and docile" labor force. Their traditional hiring mantra has been "small, foreign, and female."18 Moreover, the electronics industry has a strong corporate culture that has aggressively resisted workers’ organizing efforts to improve working and occupational health conditions. In Silicon Valley and other parts of the United States, this has translated into a highly stratified manufacturing workforce with white men in positions of power and high incomes and women and people of color holding lower-level positions and semiskilled production jobs.19

Furthermore, in many parts of Asia, workers are not allowed to form unions or strike, and working hours are often much longer than in the United States. And since electronics production is highly sensitive to the world market and fluctuations of currency values, layoffs are common.

Moreover, there is a growing trend worldwide to use contract labor. Much of the assembly work in Silicon Valley is done by contract manufacturers or contract electronic assembly companies. These trends toward outsourcing the production of electronic components help high-tech companies ramp up production of their new products, but they also result in a workforce extremely vulnerable to shifts in the market because the companies feel no long-term responsibility to the workers.20


In this era of globalization, the business model of transnational high-tech corporations is based on fundamentally unsustainable policies, short-term thinking, rapid obsolescence, and unrealistic and inflated short-term profit margins and pushes for just-in-time production schedules to avoid creating large and costly inventories. Too often these business imperatives take priority over immediate concerns of workplace safety, wage benefits, and the health of the community. Furthermore, they are frequently detrimental to the long-range health of workers and residents as well as to the environment.

As high-tech production continues to expand, and new trade initiatives help increase corporate profits, we are likely to see increased bidding wars between communities and countries as a means of attracting new industrial development. For example, Intel developed an "Ideal Incentive Matrix" itemizing over 100 subsidies and concessions it demanded as a condition for locating a new plant. We can look forward to escalating corporate subsidies and concessions in the form of tax breaks, reduced utilities, the establishment of Free Trade Zones and Industrial Revenue Bonds, and a truly international race to the bottom in terms of worker benefits, health, safety, and quality of the environment.

When the North American Free Trade Agreement was enacted in 1994, workers and environmental and community activists voiced concern that it would create a drastic decline in environmental and living standards. At the same time, companies that stood to profit from the agreement extolled the goal of getting rid of trade barriers. While industry claimed NAFTA was the key to developing new markets and a safeguard against foreign grabbing of intellectual property, NAFTA’s fine points carried a huge price tag, and reality told a different story of exported jobs, deflated wages, pollution, and deregulation of environmental protections and safety regulations that were seen as unfair barriers to trade.

Environmental, labor, and human rights activists are concerned that international negotiations favoring free trade—including the expansion of NAFTA to Central and South America, the Multilateral Agreement on Investments, the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summits, and the World Trade Organization, which implements the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade—are dangerous tools developed by transnational corporations that will continue to weaken environmental standards, increase downward pressure on wages and working conditions, bring greater exploitation of natural and human resources, drive public subsidies higher, and undermine power at the local level.

The production, ownership, possession, and control of electronic technologies have helped widen the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Yet multinational high-tech giants such as IBM, AT&T, Intel, NEC, Fujitsu, Siemens, and Samsung individually have annual net sales exceeding the gross national product of many countries in the global South. NAFTA and GATT are helping to accelerate economic and technological polarization throughout the United States and the rest of the world. There has not been much trickle down so far, and the rising tide seems to have lifted more yachts than rafts.

New globalizing structures such as NAFTA and GATT have gone hand in hand with the development of maquiladoras along the U.S.-Mexican border and substandard development throughout Asia and many other parts of the world.

The drive to eliminate all trade barriers raises serious concerns as important international trade initiatives continue to be negotiated outside public scrutiny. This results in more protections for businesses and investors, often at the expense of the environment and workers. Hard-won international environmental laws are endangered when trade agreements supersede the authority of environmental law. For example, the World Trade Organization recently overturned a U.S. law protecting endangered sea turtles, claiming the laws was an illegal trade barrier. 21

Precautionary Justice

Concerns voiced by IBM physician Harrison over the environmental and health impact of the myriad chemicals used by the industry and over Intel’s "eating our children" strategy of planned obsolescence have prompted community organizations and nongovernmental organizations to view industry’s rapid expansion and the push for streamlined environmental regulation with skepticism and alarm. Any effort at deregulation must guarantee that it doesn’t increase environmental or occupational threats or decrease corporate oversight and accountability. New paradigms for environmental protection and sustainability in the 21st century must incorporate environmental justice and the precautionary principle.

Communities are increasingly on the defensive when new industries come to town, so new strategies are needed to provide meaningful community participation and ensure community and worker protection. It will take more authentic participation and engagement from communities and workers to assure the implementation of these goals.

Over the past two decades, the environmental justice movement has emerged in response to concerns that the poor and disadvantaged bear the brunt of environmental hazards. The movement is based on the assumption that those people most affected by toxic exposure have the right to effectively participate in the decisions that affect their lives.

In 1994, President Clinton signed an executive order focusing federal attention on environmental and health conditions in low-income communities and communities of color. This order called for providing affected communities with access to public information and an opportunity to participate in matters relating to human health and the environment in their communities.

The National Environmental Justice Advisory Council—a U.S. federal advisory committee established to provide recommendations to the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on matters related to environmental justice—has developed principles to encourage public participation in all meetings by those most affected.

Moreover, the precautionary principle, adopted at the 1992 United Nations Rio conference on the environment, declares that environmental sustainability is based on protection against irreversible environmental damage even in the absence of full scientific certainty. Within the chemical corporations, the absence of toxicity data is too often taken to be proof of safety. The precautionary principle is a guide to changing that assumption. Any potentially hazardous substance or chemical should be assumed to be guilty until proven innocent, because human disease from toxic exposure is tragic, costly, avoidable, and ultimately preventable.

Breaking the Grip

In 1997, several hundred activists from Europe and around the world attended the 6th European Work Hazards Conference in Holland to address environmental health and safety issues and responsible technology in a global economy. One committee proposed that the issue of responsible technology be tackled with a new global strategy since transnational companies operate on a global scale. Committee members recommended that an International Campaign for Responsible Technology (I-CRT) be established.

Working with the U.S.-based CRT, the new I-CRT promotes high-tech development that is sustainable and also ensures protection of the environment and of workers’ health. In addition, it promotes democracy and grassroots participation in the technological decision-making process that affects workers and local communities and insists on greater accountability not only from corporations but from government as well.

Other international efforts include environmental, labor, and community activists and academics who have come together in coalitions such as "No to APEC" (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) and "The Other Economic Summit" to present a more people-centered alternative to the prevailing agenda of globalization.

But important lingering questions remain to be answered. One of the most important questions we face is: how fast is fast enough? With mergers and near monopolies of high-tech electronics and software, what recourse is there to challenge WINTEL—the industry monopoly created by the two giants, Intel and Microsoft. While Intel dominates the market for semiconductor manufacturing, Microsoft dominates the market for PC operating system software. Both companies have recently been kept busy answering antitrust charges by federal regulators.

One long-term strategy for breaking WINTEL’s grip on the market is to develop a challenge to the PC model, which encourages each desktop computer to hold much more capacity than is necessary for most jobs. While high-tech marketers raise the battle cry of consumer need and consumer demand to justify mass production of products that quickly become obsolete, they are busy spending millions of dollars on advertising and new product development to stimulate and create more demand.

Developing and promoting low cost computers that can easily connect to the Internet would be a more resource-efficient model that may help undercut the WINTEL monopoly.

The Chips are Down

The notion that market-based globalization is inevitable and unavoidable is a mantra promulgated by multinational corporations, as is the idea that the ever-increasing pace of development of technology and the electronics industries is positive. But globalization reflects economic, social, and political choices and policies that need to be scrutinized and debated. When these choices do not serve human needs and community interests, they should be rejected in favor of more people-friendly alternatives.

Now—during the current global lull and down-turn of high-tech expansion—is a perfect time for the electronics industry to reassess the dominant short-term business strategy and develop market solutions as aggressively as it develops and markets new products. The challenge for the industry is to embrace its responsibilities to workers and to the environment as aggressively and comprehensively as it does its products and to develop sustainable manufacturing processes and a sustainable development model that can take us into the next century. As the industry plans each new generation of chips, we all have a stake in planning for the next generation of healthy children, a healthy environment, and a healthy economy.n

Leslie Byster is program director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, and Ted Smith is executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition in San Jose, California.

1. Semiconductor Industry Association Website:

2. Ruth DeJule, "New Fab Construction," Semiconductor International (January 1998).

3. Reuters wire, September 15, 1997.

4. Environmental Consciousness: A Strategic Competitiveness Issue for the Electronics and Computer Industry (Austin, TX: Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, 1993).

5. Joseph LaDou, "Health Issues in the Global Semiconductor Industry," Annals of the Academy of Medicine 23 (5) (September 1994).

6. Myron Harrison, "Semiconductor Manufacturing Hazards," reprinted from Hazardous Materials Toxicology (Baltimore, MD: Williams and Wilkins, 1992).

7. Evan Ramstad, "Intel will Introduce New Chip in 1995," Albuquerque Journal (January 29, 1994).

8. "Water Exposure and Pregnancy Outcomes" California Department of Health Services (May 1988).

9. Figures based on a speech by Graydon Larabee, Texas Instruments fellow at the International Symposium on Semiconductor Manufacturing, September 1993.

10. DeJule, "New Fab Construction."

11. Joseph LaDou and Timothy Rohm, "The International Electronics Industry," International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health 4 (1) (January-March 1998).

12. Peter Montague, "The Toxic Substance Control Act," RACHEL’S Environment and Health Weekly (published by the Environmental Research Foundation) 564 (September 18, 1997).

13. LaDou and Rohm, "The International Electronics Industry," p. 2.

14. Ibid.

15. LaDou, "Health Issues in the Global Semiconductor Industry."

16. "Deaths Blamed on IBM: Its Workers Allegedly Were Exposed to Cancer-causing Chemicals," San Jose Mercury News (February 23, 1998).

17. Bill Richards, "Chip Plants Aren’t as Safe and Clean as Billed, Some Say," Wall Street Journal (October 5, 1998).

18. Karen Hossfeld, "Why Aren’t High-Tech Workers Organized?" Common Interests: Women Organizing in Global Electronics, (London: Working Women World Wide,1991).

19. Lenny Siegel, "Analysis of High-Tech Employment Patterns in Eight Leading U.S. High-Tech Centers," Pacific Studies Center (September 1992).

20. Chris Benner, "Shock Absorbers in the Flexible Economy: The Rise of Contingent Employment in Silicon Valley," Semiconductor Industry Association’s Web page,, Working Partnerships USA, 1996.

21. "World Trade Group Overrules U.S. Law," San Jose Mercury News (October 13, 1998).

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