ann maria bell


alternate versions at the silicon valley toxics coalition.

Clouds in Silicon Valley

September 4, 2003


SAN JOSE, Calif. It was a special occasion, a dinner party at Le Papillon restaurant to celebrate Ron Loanzon's 50th birthday. Everyone was having a great time until Mr. Loanzon dropped his fork.

This was on March 16, 1999. The fork fell to the floor and Mr. Loanzon tried to reach for it. But he couldn't. He just stared at it. He didn't say anything, just stared with a peculiar expression that frightened his relatives.

"In his mind, he was bending and reaching for it," said his wife, Cora, in an interview a few days ago. "He was trying, but nothing happened."

The relatives waited for this odd moment to pass, but it didn't, and Mr. Loanzon had to be taken to a hospital. A malignant brain tumor was discovered. Nine months later Mr. Loanzon, an I.B.M. employee who worked with the highly toxic chemicals used in electronic manufacturing, was dead.

Rudy Rubio's wife, Suzanne, also worked at the I.B.M. complex here in the heart of Silicon Valley. "She worked in a clean room," said Mr. Rubio, referring to the high-tech, supposedly pristine environment in which chips and disks are fabricated.

The pristine environment is for the sake of the products, which can be ruined by even a speck of dust. At the same time, the hazardous chemicals used in the process are capable of doing devastating physical damage to the workers.

No one has a clear understanding of the extent of the danger to workers over the past few decades. It's indisputable that large numbers of men and women who worked with these chemicals, some of them known to be carcinogens, have come down with cancer and other serious diseases. But no one knows whether there is a real causal connection. Many loud warnings have been issued since at least the late-1970's, but the proper studies have not been done.

Mrs. Rubio learned she had cancer in 1987 and underwent a modified radical mastectomy, on her right breast. Soon after surgery she was put back to work in the same environment, working with the same toxic chemicals. Still experiencing discomfort from the surgery, Mrs. Rubio complained to her bosses that her right arm had begun to hurt. An I.B.M. medical history sheet dated Nov. 16, 1987, said she was "advised to move her trays to the left side" and continue doing her work with her left arm.

Lawyers for the Rubio family said she continued working in clean rooms throughout 1988 and 1989. During that time, they said, she was exposed to a "witches' brew" of foul chemicals. In 1990 cancer was again diagnosed, and this time it spread through much of her body. She died on Jan. 19, 1991. She was 36.

The semiconductor industry has reacted with near paranoia to any suggestion that anyone has gotten sick or died from working with these chemicals. The manufacturing processes have improved and safety is less of a problem now than in years past. The last thing the industry wants to hear about is the possibility that large numbers of workers have already died and many others are desperately sick from chemicals in the semiconductor workplace.

But there is a compelling need to know whether some of the men and women who did the grunt work in the creation of a fantastic new industry sacrificed their health and their lives in the process.

The absence of definitive studies left a vacuum that all but assured the matter would end up in the courts. More than 200 plaintiffs in California, New York and Minnesota have sued I.B.M. and some of its chemical suppliers for damages. The fighting between the two sides has been ferocious.

One of the plaintiffs' attorneys, Richard Alexander of the Alexander, Hawes & Audet law firm in San Jose, said I.B.M. officials never took steps to warn or properly protect employees even though the officials "knew that toxic chemicals were causing disease" and an unusual number of I.B.M. workers "were dying decades before expected."

Representatives of I.B.M. have said there's no evidence anyone has died from chemical exposure in the workplace and, in background conversations, have spoken venomously about the motives and tactics of the lawyers and others who have gone to bat for the plaintiffs.

As the years pass, the heartbreaking cases are piling up. A disinterested, third-party study -- rigorous and comprehensive -- could provide answers to the crucial question of whether some of that heartbreak is linked to the workplace.

Copyright 2003 - New York Times +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Sick and Suspicious

September 9, 2003


SAN JOSE, Calif. -- While I.B.M. officials deny it, evidence is being offered by stricken employees that unusually large numbers of men and women who worked for the giant computer corporation over the past few decades have been dying prematurely.

I.B.M. employees, and relatives of employees who have died, are claiming in a series of very bitter lawsuits that I.B.M. workers have contracted cancer and other serious illnesses from chemicals they were exposed to in semiconductor and disk-drive manufacturing, laboratory work and other very basic industrial operations.

Dr. Richard Clapp, a respected epidemiologist from Boston University who was hired by a group of 40 plaintiffs in San Jose, said statistical analyses he has run from data provided by the company have shown troubling elevations of breast cancer, non-Hodgkins lymphoma and brain cancer among I.B.M. employees. He also said the cancers appeared to be occurring in I.B.M. employees at ages younger than the U.S. average.

Some of the stories are chilling. Gary Adams, a chemist, sadly offers the names of friends and co-workers from the mid-1960's to late 1970's who were part of a small product development group in Building 13 at the I.B.M. complex on San Jose's South Side: John Wong, Ray Hawkins, Gordon Mol, Dewayne Johnson, Al Smith, Dan Fields, Robert Cappell, Ken Hart.

All of them died after contracting malignant illnesses, most of them succumbing in their 30's and 40's. Incredibly, four of them died after developing brain cancer, a rare disease in adults.

"There are not many still around," said Mr. Adams, who had a nonmalignant bone tumor removed from his left leg in 1985 and now suffers from a precancerous condition in his esophagus. "If we'd known all this from the beginning," he said, "we'd never have gone to work for I.B.M. We'd all have become shoe salesmen or something."

More than 200 plaintiffs in California, New York and Minnesota have sued I.B.M., which has spent many decades cultivating a reputation as a corporation that emphasized workplace safety and went out of its way to protect its employees. The lawsuits insist that the reality was otherwise, that officials at I.B.M. knew that workers were being put at risk of contracting cancer and other serious illnesses by their regular exposure to a variety of poisonous chemicals, many known to be carcinogens.

Companies that provided chemicals to I.B.M. are also defendants in the suits. The workers were not told of the risks, according to the lawsuits, even after they began showing symptoms of systemic chemical poisoning.

Alida Hernandez, a retired I.B.M. employee, held a number of jobs that required her to work with toxic chemicals. She learned she had breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy in 1993. She told me this week, "If they had told me when I first interviewed that I would be working with hazardous chemicals that might cause cancer, I would not have gone to work."

I.B.M. has vehemently denied all of the plaintiffs' claims, and is being represented by Jones Day, one of the firms that represented R. J. Reynolds in the tobacco industry's fight against a long line of lawsuits.

I.B.M. officials have said all along -- and repeated to me this week -- that they do not believe there is any scientific basis for any of the plaintiffs' claims. There is no evidence, they said, that any employee contracted cancer as a result of exposure to chemicals at I.B.M. In a work force as large as I.B.M.'s, they said, many workers will die from many different illnesses, including cancer.

I.B.M. officials also said they will present their own experts who will refute Dr. Clapp's findings.

Four of the 40 lawsuits in San Jose are due to go to trial next month. All the suits are being watched extremely closely by the semiconductor industry, which had been warned for years that chip-making and other processes requiring the use of tremendous amounts of toxic chemicals might be associated with cancers, miscarriages, birth defects and other very serious health problems.

The processes at most U.S. plants, including I.B.M.'s, have improved. They are much cleaner and are believed to be much safer now. But an extraordinary number of workers were employed in the older facilities as the computer industry grew with breathtaking speed to become one of the dominant forces in American life in the last half of the 20th century.

Copyright 2003 - New York Times +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Early Warnings

September 12, 2003


Ethylene glycol ethers are a group of organic solvents that proved to be extremely effective at coating surfaces evenly. They've been used in paints, nail polish, de-icers and many other products. One of their most important industrial applications was in the semiconductor industry. These marvelous chemicals, E.G.E.'s, were the key ingredients in a solution used in the fabrication of computer chips.

But there were some problems. Studies began emerging in the late 1970's that showed these chemicals wreaking havoc with the reproductive processes in rodents. They were linked to testicular damage, miscarriages and birth defects.

Even as the warnings grew louder, workers by the thousands were toiling in the "clean rooms" where extraordinary amounts of toxic chemicals, including E.G.E.'s, were being put to use in the manufacture of chips, disks and other electronic components.

In the early 1980's, both the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the California Department of Health Services issued alerts regarding workers exposed to E.G.E.'s. The fear was that the reproductive problems found in the animal studies might also be occurring in humans.

Some industries moved with dispatch to get E.G.E's out of the workplace. But the booming semiconductor industry, which powered the spectacular computer revolution that shaped the last third of the 20th century, was not one of them.

Worker safety would have to wait.

The awareness of a potential problem was certainly there. In the spring of 1982, the Semiconductor Industry Association formally alerted industry executives to the results from the animal studies. And the following September the Chemical Manufacturers Association issued an alert.

Years passed, additional documentation piled up, and studies of humans began to turn up problems similar to those found in animals.

By the late 1980's, the industry could no longer hide from the issue. A study at a Digital Equipment Corporation plant in Hudson, Mass., had shown a marked increase in miscarriages among semiconductor workers. Industry leaders immediately complained that the sample was too small. Larger studies were commissioned by both the Semiconductor Industry Association and I.B.M.

The hope at the time was that the larger studies would refute the findings of the smaller one. The opposite occurred.

The I.B.M. study was conducted by Johns Hopkins University, and it found a big link between miscarriages and exposure to E.G.E.'s. "Women with the highest exposure potential," the study said, "had a threefold increased risk of spontaneous abortion compared to female employees with no potential for direct exposure to E.G.E."

The study said, "We also found evidence that the work on processes with direct exposure to E.G.E. was associated with an increased risk of subfertility in female employees and a suggestion of a similar effect in male employees and their wives."

The study by the Semiconductor Industry Association came up with similar findings. The reproductive havoc was not limited to rodents.

I.B.M. stopped using E.G.E.'s in all new processes in 1992 and finally stopped using them altogether in 1995, a decade and a half after the warnings began circulating. No one knows how many workers may have been harmed in that period.

A spokesman for I.B.M. said in an e-mail message yesterday that "finding suitable alternative materials for processes in semiconducting manufacturing is a complex process."

A peculiar thing about the I.B.M. study was that while it focused on reproductive processes right up until the moment of birth, it did not study the health outcomes of newborns - to what extent, for example, they might have suffered from birth defects.

In the damage suits that have been brought against more than 200 of its employees are a number of cases of hideous birth defects that the plaintiffs allege were caused by exposure to toxic chemicals, including ethylene glycol ethers.

I.B.M. has already thrown in the towel in one case, that of Zachary Ruffing, a teenager who was born blind and extremely deformed to parents who had both worked in the company's plant in East Fishkill, N.Y., in the 1980's.

While I.B.M. and two of its chemical suppliers agreed to settle the case, they did not acknowledge that they had done anything wrong.

Copyright 2003 - New York Times +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

I.B.M. Families Ask, 'Why?'

September 15, 2003


GOSHEN, N.Y. The Daley twins, Kate and Kelly, are 24 years old, witty, charming and, above all, intelligent. You couldn't necessarily tell from just talking with them that they had been the victims of a catastrophe. But you can tell by looking at them.

Kate and Kelly have been profoundly disfigured by a rare degenerative skin disease that literally ravaged their bodies from head to foot. They were born with the disease, epidermolysis bullosa. Its appalling effect has been comparable to being burned every day of one's life.

The twins' bodies are almost completely covered with blisters, sores and terrible wounds that resist healing. They have undergone more than 30 surgeries each. The disease and relentless surgery have all but destroyed their hands, which are now little more than stumps. At times they are unable to open their eyes because of corneal abrasions. When they testified before Congress three years ago in a plea for more funding for research on the disease, Kelly said, "I live in a body that has turned on itself."

When I asked during an interview last week how they managed to keep their spirits up, Kate gave a wry laugh and said, "Antidepressants help."

I interviewed them in the office of one of their lawyers, William DeProspo, and in the presence of their father, Chris Daley, who was employed at the I.B.M. plant in East Fishkill, N.Y., from 1973 to 1993. During most of that time he worked extensively with chemicals, pouring and mixing them, storing them and disposing of them, he said. Many of the chemicals were extremely dangerous, and he believes his exposure to them was the cause of the birth defects that have plagued his daughters.

Many of the damage suits brought against I.B.M. by individuals claiming to have been harmed by chemicals in the workplace involve birth defects suffered by the children of employees. The stories are inevitably heartbreaking. Heather Curtis said she worked with chemicals at I.B.M. while she was pregnant in 1980. Her daughter, Candace, was born with microcephaly, an abnormality that retarded the development of her brain, and no knees. She was unable to breathe on her own and was not physically capable of talking. Ms. Curtis has a son who was born before Candace and a son born after her, and both are normal.

Nancy LaCroix has worked for about 20 years at I.B.M.'s huge plant in Essex Junction, near Burlington, Vt. She said she worked in areas in which she was surrounded by chemical fumes ("it really smelled bad in there") and employees at times had to leave their work stations because of burning eyes and nostrils.

In 1999 her daughter Ally was born with severe bone defects, including encephalocele, a condition in which a portion of the brain protrudes through a defect in the skull. Ally's fingers are stunted and "tapered like a starfish," said Ms. LaCroix, "and she really doesn't have toes."

The child has had eight operations and extensive physical therapy. Now 4 1/2, she complains about headaches "every single day," her mother said.

There is a long list of young people and children who have suffered tragic birth defects -- spina bifida, missing or deformed limbs, a missing kidney, a missing vagina, blindness -- whose parents (in some cases both parents) worked for I.B.M. and are now suing.

Plaintiffs' lawyers contend there are higher than normal rates of birth defects among I.B.M. employees who have worked with the toxic chemicals that are common to semiconductor manufacturing.

One of the lawyers, Steven Phillips of Manhattan, said: "These cases are extreme. I've never seen children as badly hurt as these."

I.B.M. strongly denies that there are more instances of birth defects in the children of its employees than among the population in general. And representatives have repeatedly said there is no scientific evidence associating chemicals in its workplaces with birth defects, cancers or any other illnesses or abnormalities.

The legal process will determine whether the plaintiffs in these suits deserve to be compensated. The larger question is whether the chemicals used in the semiconductor industry, not just at I.B.M. but throughout the U.S. and around the world, have harmed large numbers of workers and their offspring. And if so, what should be done to aid those individuals, and to prevent the harm from continuing.

copyright New York Times 2003