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Charges Against Semiconductor Industry Highlight a Global Issue - 2004-09-07

Although it?s one of the most chemical-intensive industries ever, computer manufacturing has long had a pristine image, with its factory ?clean rooms? and workers clad head-to-toe in ?bunny suits,? coveralls meant to keep outside contaminants from spoiling delicate computer chips. And to most users, computers certainly seem to be a clean, benign technology. But lawsuits against International Business Machines (IBM), offer a different picture of the industry, one that has also led to lawsuits by Scottish workers against National Semiconductor. On both sides of the Atlantic, workers are alleging that making computer chips and other computer parts exposed them to toxic chemicals that caused their cancers ? or birth defects in their children. Carolyn Weaver reports:

As a young newlywed, Ron Murray began working for IBM in Upstate New York in 1964. Standing by the highway, the now retired Mr. Murray pointed to his former workplace, a campus of long, low buildings in East Fishkill. ?This is Building 310, the building I worked in for five years, from about 1964 to 1969,? he said. He remembers it as a good place to work, with high pay and benefits ? so good that workers referred to IBM as ?Big Daddy.?

But Mr. Murray says the company didn?t provide protective gear, even though workers used dozens of chemicals making computer parts. ?The only protection we had was some finger cots for our fingers, not even a full rubber glove, just a little rubber finger cot that slides over a finger, and that?s why the crevices in your hands weren?t protected,? he told a reporter in an interview at his home in the upstate town of Carmel. Asked if he had dipped his hands directly into chemicals, Mr. Murray said, ?Oh, absolutely, at times I had to.? The lines in workers? palms were sometimes red and raw, he said, and headaches were common. His building was occasionally evacuated when chemical vapors became strong, and workers wondered if they should be concerned.

?We tried to get more attention to the fumes in the area, we tried to get more attention to people?s hands opening up,? Mr. Murray said. ?They [management] kept telling us over and over, ?the chemicals are safe, Safety?s here [IBM?s internal safety officers], they?re talking to you, Safety talks to OSHA [the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration], Safety has OSHA involved in the checking, Safety does this, Safety does that.??

IBM declined to be interviewed about past or present conditions at its plants. However, a spokesman said the company has always operated to the highest standards to protect its workers. About a year after he began working at IBM, Ron Murray?s wife became pregnant. Their first child, Edwina, was born with hydrocephaly [a condition in which fluid collects abnormally within the brain] and multiple broken bones from her passage through the birth canal. And her bones continued to break at the slightest touch.

?You could not touch her with our hands,? Mr. Murray said. ?We had to wear special, very, very soft, fur-lined gloves. The baby had to be carried on a pillow. You could not put a diaper on the baby. Because the restriction of the diaper, should she move, could break her leg.?

Edwina was cared for in a hospital for most of her life, and died at fifteen months. Ron?s wife miscarried a second pregnancy. Their third child, Barbara, was born with a tumor in place of one lung. ?So she died, she was four or five days old,? Mr. Murray said bleakly.

According to Mr. Murray, neither his family nor his wife?s had any history of birth defects. His wife was a fulltime homemaker, and both of them were in their early twenties. And in 1968, they finally had a healthy baby, a boy named Ron after his father. A few years later, in 1971, their daughter Kathleen was born, also healthy. But when she was still a toddler, Kathleen developed an odd rash, and was discovered to have internal bleeding. After weeks of tests, Mr. Murray said, doctors at New York?s Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital were still unsure what the disorder was or what had caused it. But they said Kathleen had to be protected from even minor bruising or she might bleed to death.

?The little capillaries in the body were just opening up, because her platelet count was way deficient,? Mr. Murray recalled. ?So, we had to have a specially designed football helmet for the baby -- she had to walk around with a football helmet on.? A snapshot from that time shows a tiny Kathleen standing in the kitchen with a large helmet on her head.

By the time she was eight or nine, however, Kathleen?s blood count had slowly normalized. Again, doctors weren?t sure why, Mr. Murray said. In snapshots from those years, she and her red-haired older brother look healthy. And although Mr. Murray said he and his wife?s emotional strain led to their divorce, their children?s health remained good, until about ten years ago. In his mid-twenties, the younger Ron Murray was diagnosed with two forms of cancer, including testicular cancer. Kathleen began experiencing debilitating pain in her chest, and after 12 years of marriage has been unable to become pregnant. Doctors found that the position of her uterus and ovaries is reversed. It was around that time that Ron Murray saw a television news program about IBM workers whose families had similar health problems.

?And they?re naming the abnormalities and the diseases that Edwina, that Barbara had,? he said, recalling his shock. ?They?re naming cancers that my son now has, he just told me a year before this program that he?s got this. And there?s other people talking about pain and organs in the wrong places, and now I got my daughter [with the same problems]. That program linked my life together, but I still couldn?t believe it.?

Ron Murray, who has suffered from melanoma and other cancers since his thirties, has since joined about 200 workers who have sued IBM, alleging it negligently exposed them to chemicals that caused illness in them or birth defects in their children. IBM has won one case and settled about fifty others so far, including at least two cases involving birth defects. The terms of the settlements are secret.

IBM strongly denies its workplaces caused any harm to workers. But National Academy of Sciences scholar and former Harvard epidemiologist John Bailar says there is reason for concern. ?There?s very substantial exposure [of workers in the industry] to dozens and in some cases hundreds of chemicals, and many of those are already known to be very toxic, to cause cancer, to cause birth defects of various kinds,? he said in an interview.

Dr. Bailar said glycol ethers in particular were still being used by IBM and some other companies in the late 1980s, years after they were shown to cause birth defects. He charged that the computer industry has ignored the issue of possible toxic effects on workers, and has refused to cooperate with efforts by independent scientists to investigate worker health.

George Scalise, president of the Semiconductor Industry Association, rejects all those allegations. His organization has had an active committee on worker safety and health since its founding, he said, and is now sponsoring the first broad study of worker health, to be carried out by independent scientists. He said he found it hard to imagine that computer workers were ever directly exposed to chemicals. And Mr. Scalise said the industry acted promptly to remove glycol ethers in the 1990s. ?As soon as the issue arose, we commissioned a study, and [when] the findings came back, we put together a program to eliminate them, and we did,? he said.

The issue is increasingly international. Lawsuits by workers in Scotland and France have also been filed against several computer companies, including National Semiconductor, which is based in California. And in developing countries, in factories from China to India?s Silicon plateau, environmental health experts note that workers have fewer legal protections than in the U.S. ?As manufacturers in those countries import the used equipment from here, and the old methods, and put those in the hands of workers who are on the whole less well-trained, less able to protect themselves, whatever problems we have here are going to be a lot bigger,? Dr. Bailar said.

It may never be known what devastated Ron Murray?s family and caused his own bouts with cancer. But as he awaits his day in court, Murray says he can?t forget the moment when he came to suspect his tragedies might be linked to his employer of 27 years.