March 28, 1996

Ailing Computer-Chip Workers Blame Chemicals, Not Chance


EAST FISHKILL, N.Y. -- In 1988, Miriam Nicole Sanders, James Gibbons and Glenn Haight worked side by side on an IBM production line here, making computer chips and happy to be earning $7 an hour.

Four years later, Miss Sanders was dead of cancer at the age of 24; Gibbons, now 28, had a testicular tumor and Haight, now 26, was fighting cancer.

"We were all as healthy as could be when we went into the job," Haight said the other day. "A few years later, Nicole was dead, Jim had problems and I had cancer. It can't be a mere coincidence."

Chance may be the explanation for what happened to the workers on the late shift in IBM's Building 322. But this small grouping of serious illnesses from among hundreds of people who worked at the plant over the years conforms to the worst concerns of specialists studying the chemicals used by the semiconductor industry, like Dr. Bruce A. Fowler, the director of toxicology at the University of Maryland.

Ever since studies in the 1980s began to establish a link between the chemicals used in chip-making and miscarriages among some workers, groups like the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and the Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety and Health have been warning that detailed health studies might turn up links between the chemicals and other illnesses.

The industry and the companies that supply the substances used in chip production, including arsenic, nickel and methylene chloride, acknowledge that many of them are highly toxic. But the companies also say that the use of the chemicals is controlled so tightly during the production of silicon chips that employees are not exposed to any dangers.

"We are not aware of a single worker who has been exposed to a carcinogen and has a problem as a result of it," Jeff Weir, a spokesman for the Semiconductor Industry Association, said this week.

Neither these critics nor the industry, however, has initiated a study of broad health effects that could start to answer such questions. And no one, until now, has publicly brought forward any group of ailing workers that would allow scientists to begin to ask these questions outside of a theoretical setting.

A lawsuit filed Wednesday claims that the chemicals caused the illnesses of the three workers at the plant and four others from IBM fabrication rooms here. The suit, filed in state Supreme Court in Manhattan by the workers or their family members, seeks damages from four chemical companies that made the compounds used by IBM

The four companies named in the suit are Union Carbide Corp., Eastman Kodak Co., J.T. Baker Chemical Co. and KTI Chemical Corp., a former subsidiary of Union Carbide that has been dissolved.

Eastman Kodak did not return telephone calls seeking comment. The other companies had no comment, saying they had not studied the suit yet.

IBM's spokesman, Fred P. McNeese, would only say that "IBM has a longstanding commitment to a safe working environment and compliance with all health and safety regulations and laws."

Whatever happens in the case will be watched with intense scrutiny by people on all sides of the issue concerning the possible health effects of the chip-making industry, which employs 40,000 manufacturing workers nationally.

It may be years before there are answers to the questions raised by the workers here. There may be nothing wrong with the way the chemicals are used in the industry, or with any particular use at the IBM plant here.

Although IBM is not named in the suit, because workers' compensation laws preclude any payment, the industry is adamant that there is no risk to workers.

Critics and some independent experts have long argued, however, that because life-threatening illnesses like cancer are known to be caused by some of the chip-making compounds, the industry should study the health of its workers.

"What I suspect is, over the next 5 or 10 years, we're going to start seeing more and more of these kinds of reports," said Fowler, who has been studying several of the toxic substances used in chip production. He was told about the East Fishkill cases by a reporter.

Groups of cancers and other serious illnesses like those described by the workers here "are very important signs that something may be wrong and should be studied," said Dr. Joseph LaDou, director of occupational medicine at the University of California in San Francisco and a specialist in health issues in the semiconductor industry.

In recent years, chip manufacturers have acknowledged some limited dangers to their workers. In three industry studies of thousands of workers in the last 10 years, including one at IBM's plant here, women who worked in fabrication rooms were found to have a rate of miscarriages of 40 percent or more above non-manufacturing workers.

In 1992, after an extensive study of workers at 14 semiconductor manufacturers showed the increased risk of spontaneous abortions, the industry's experts said the cause was a class of common solvents, ethylene-based glycol ethers.

For years, the industry, including IBM, has been replacing those solvents with less toxic ones. The industry's experts said that they have dealt aggressively with the reproductive-health problem and that they saw no hint of other serious effects on workers.

Chemical exposures, they often note, are usually so infrequent in fabrication rooms that they cannot be measured. Industry spokesmen also say that government statistics on workplace safety show that, aside from the miscarriages, their plants are safer than most manufacturing sites.

The critics say the safety statistics are misleading, in part because low-wage production workers are often long-gone from their jobs by the time symptoms appear and have no way to make the cause-and-effect connection themselves.

Here in the Hudson Valley, about an hour's drive north of New York City, the fabrication-room debate among scientists was remote when Miss Sanders, Gibbons and the other workers took their places in IBM's fabrication rooms in the 1980s.

Much of the focus of the health debate then was on Silicon Valley, the area around San Jose, Calif., where most of the chip-making companies were concentrated.

Here in East Fishkill, where the fabrication room in Building 322 is closed but other fabrication rooms remain open, workers said they felt safe.

In the 1980s, some of the workers said, a position at IBM was still the Hudson Valley dream job. The pay was better than at most places. And, even if IBM was already struggling to hold its place against new competitors, it was still Big Blue, celebrated around here for taking care of its own.

Once you got a job here, said Keith Barrack, who worked in one of the IBM fabrication rooms, "you want to do everything you can to stay because the family has told you it's such a great place to work."

Barrack's mother, grandfather and grandmother were all IBM employees. The 32-year-old Barrack's testicular cancer was diagnosed in 1994 and he is one of the employees represented in the lawsuit.

The fabrication rooms here, as at all chip manufacturers, look harmless enough. The industry calls them "clean rooms" because extreme precautions are taken to limit contaminants. The silicon wafers are often shielded while they are treated with chemicals. The chemicals are often sealed and, sometimes, applied by robotic devices.

The IBM workers, like employees of other chip makers, wear polyester "bunny suits," goggles and rubber gloves. Before entering the rooms, the workers take forced-air showers to remove dust particles from their clothing.

But the precautions are not for them but for the costly chips. A silicon wafer can be ruined by even a speck of dust.

By the late 1980s, workers here say, reports about the miscarriages began to circulate. Workers in Building 322's fabrication room were particularly anxious, people who worked there at the time said, because there were four miscarriages among the dozens of women who worked through the three daily shifts.

Some employees grew apprehensive about bouts of nausea, bloody noses and dry throats. Some began to read labels on the chemicals like this one for Positive Photoresist, a compound made by KTI and used by most of the workers in the lawsuit:

"May cause damage to blood forming tissues. May cause damage to testes. In laboratory animal studies of 2-ethoxyethyl acetate, birth defects and adverse effects on pregnancy have been observed."

By the 1980s, among the workers here, some of them said, the carpool conversation often turned to health concerns. Herbert Heinrich, a retired IBM fabrication worker who is not part of the suit, remembered:

"A lot of us thought, 'Why do we smell the fumes? Why do we get dizzy sometimes, and why do we feel sick?' But we didn't have a choice. We needed the jobs."

Robert Kelleher, 40, a former fabrication-room worker who is part of the suit, said the machine where he worked sometimes splashed the maple-colored Photoresist. Kelleher was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1991. While doctors could not pinpoint the cause of his cancer, Kelleher believes it is from exposure to the chemicals.

Several workers said alarms intended to detect chemical leaks were often ignored. Debra Drew, now 35, who worked in fabrication rooms in both Buildings 322 and 323, said people seemed to need to believe there was nothing wrong.

When she returned to work in 1986 after a maternity leave, Mrs. Drew said, no one budged when the buzzer sounded. "I couldn't get over how an alarm would go off and I was the only one running out the door," she said. Her caution did not help, though, Mrs. Drew believes. She has had several operations for brain tumors that she believes were caused by the chemicals.

Most of the workers in the suit had been gone from IBM for several years when a Goshen, N.Y., lawyer, William L. DeProspo, began to investigate last year. DeProspo said he began to see a pattern after Barrack conferred with him about his own cancer case and described other IBM workers with unexplained illnesses.

In recent weeks, DeProspo and other lawyers working on the case offered to make the workers in the lawsuit available for interviews in the hope that publicity would encourage other IBM employees to join the case.

Several of the workers participating in the suit said the case was a search for answers. But Barrack, whose cancer is in remission, said he has already learned enough. "I think we were just a number," he said. "They cared more about the plant than about us."

When doctors told Miss Sanders they had found a cancerous tumor in her colon she was 22. By then, in 1990, she had left IBM and was a student at Sullivan County Community College.

Her mother, Brenda Sanders, an assistant principal at an elementary school in Newburgh, said the doctors told the family that they rarely saw people as young as her daughter with the type of cancer she had. Nicole died in 1992. The doctors had no explanation.

Her husband, Mrs. Sanders said, was driven to try to solve the puzzle of her death, researching cancer at the library and asking questions. "He said to me, 'Something is not right here.' I said to him, 'James, just let it go.' "

Now, she said, it is hard for either of them to let it go. She said she had been shocked to learn of the long history of health concerns over many of the chemicals used to make computer chips.

"I think our daughter and others have been the byproduct of greed over safety," Mrs. Sanders said. "The company was more concerned with making the dollar than with the safety of their employees. They knew there were hazards but they closed their eyes to them to keep the line moving."

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