Minorities and Toxics in Silicon Valley Manufacturing

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					                          Minorities and Toxics in
                       Silicon Valley Manufacturing

                            CAAS 332 / NRE / ENVIRON 336

                                  Michael G. Smith

                                     November 30, 2004

                             Professor: Dr. Dorceta E. Taylor
                                   2576 Dana Building

                                       GSI: Gia Grier
                                      4649 Haven Hall


        This paper focuses on silicon manufacturing in Silicon Valley through recent years and
the environmental injustices that have subsequently arisen. Specific viewpoints are presented by
laborers in semiconductor manufacturing facilities and residents in neighborhoods surrounding
the high-tech industry. A specific look is taken at clean rooms and the injustices that take place
with minority workers. The ultimate argument is that microchip manufacturers do not take
necessary precautions to protect neighborhoods and employees, and minority and low-income
groups are the most affected. Information about advocacy groups and possible solutions for
resolving the inequalities is also presented.
                                                                                     Michael G. Smith
                                                                       CAAS 332 / NRE / ENVIRON 336


       Silicon Valley has always been known for its innovation and technical progress.

However, the claim that these industries are "clean" appears far from true. Both workers and

surrounding neighborhoods are suffering from chemicals in the air they breathe and the water

they drink. Large Silicon Valley firms, such as IBM, often downplay the health risks. Minorities,

and especially Latinos, are often affected as they form lower income groups. Lower class

minority workers often perform menial jobs in chip manufacturing facilities and lower income

groups tend to live closer to industrial areas. One must understand some of the specific causes of

these toxics before delving into the specific discourses of environmental injustice in Silicon

Valley. Microchip manufacturers do not take necessary precautions to protect neighborhoods and

employees, and minority and low-income groups are the most affected.

       Since I am very interested in computer technology, this topic seemed appealing to me.

Before conducting my research, I knew very little about the dangers of silicon microchip

production, and perhaps it will make me think about the manufacturing process the next time I

purchase a technology product. I also assumed that workers in the factories had decent paying

jobs and good working conditions due to the nature of "high-tech" production, but I also

discovered that is untrue.

                        A Brief History of Manufacturing in Silicon Valley

       Silicon manufacturing, in what is now known as Silicon Valley in California, began

during World War II to sustain economic development and provide the necessary technology for

the war. IBM built its first West Coast facility in San Jose in 1943. The placement of IBM and

other large technology firms signaled a transition from agriculture to technology (Pellow and

Park 59). Minority workers who held jobs in the agricultural sector would now transition to other

                                                                                     Michael G. Smith
                                                                       CAAS 332 / NRE / ENVIRON 336

jobs. Other companies, such as Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, which formed in the late 50s

and 60s, began to form Silicon Valley in San Jose and Santa Clara County (Pellow and Park 62).

The industry's image of "clean and lily-white" was instilled in society in the San Jose News when

it declared these "new types of industries…eliminated or reduced industrial nuisances" (qtd. in

Pellow and Park 63). Companies were moving in and few knew what environmental impacts

were looming.

       Once minorities became included in high-tech manufacturing, the environmental aspects

began to appear. A 1979 report from the San Jose Mercury News then revealed a great economic

gap between the white majority and minorities, and that more than half of the immigrants were

working in jobs below their skill level in the electronics industry (Pellow and Park 67). Park and

Pellow, in their piece Racial formation, environmental racism, and the emergence of Silicon

Valley, say these groups have historically been "exploit[ed] and degrade[ed]" along with their

natural environment (407-8). Once included in Silicon Valley industry, they became part of the

many environmental problems in the facilities during the 70s, 80s, and beyond. In addition, high-

tech manufacturing was now moving out of white communities to minority and lower-income

communities (Park and Pellow 416). Past Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) data from the census

clearly showed environmental inequality for Santa Clara County, especially in low income and

minority (mostly Latino) neighborhoods (Park and Pellow 417). Environmental issues still loom

today for these minorities with no end in sight.


                               Toxics from the High-Tech Industry

       High-tech industry is really not as environmentally clean as it appears. Both individual

workers and nearby neighborhoods are unfortunately impacted by many environmentally unsafe

                                                                                      Michael G. Smith
                                                                        CAAS 332 / NRE / ENVIRON 336

byproducts. For example, ten of 36 plants in Silicon Valley have been cited for safety problems

during 1993 and 1997, and the many workers in these facilities, who are often women and

minorities, are not always fully trained about the chemicals they work with ('Clean' Cyber

Industry). Community water supplies have also been contaminated in the 80s from the leakage of

chemicals from storage tanks. From 1977 to 1981, 1,1,1-trichlorethane, an organic solvent,

leaked from Fairchild Semiconductor which supposedly resulted in increased birth defects and

miscarriages (Williams 1). Superfund sites, sites marked by the EPA as highly polluted, number

23 in Santa Clara County; 21 are related to the high-tech industry (Worth). These contaminants

include PCBs and other volatile organic compounds used in the production of semiconductors

and other electronics (Worth). The water table is low in Santa Clara County; therefore, leaky

tanks with these chemicals can affect neighboring communities, often where minorities live.

These toxics are dangerous and definitely do not represent this industry as clean and pristine.

       Employees can be subjected to equally dangerous conditions on a daily basis. Disk-

coating operations use acetone, which burns skin – the use of a full-face respirator is

recommended (Fisher, Part 1). However, the employee is not often provided this safety

equipment or training. Other components in this process, often found in clean rooms, include

xylene, epoxy resins, hydrofluoric acid, antimony, boron, and arsenic (Fisher, Part 1). Many of

these are known to cause cancer or other adverse health effects. Employees have ended up with

conditions such as multiple sclerosis, breast cancer, and brain tumors without receiving

compensation from companies such as IBM (Ioffee, Clean Room). However, no link has yet

been directly proven between the use of these chemicals and health conditions and research

appears to be lacking (Ioffee, Clean Room). However, according to David Pellow, "[t]he rate of

occupational illness among electronics workers is more than three times that of any other basic

                                                                                     Michael G. Smith
                                                                       CAAS 332 / NRE / ENVIRON 336

industry," and it at least disproves the industry as clean and environmentally safe (258-9). These

dangerous conditions do require more investigation and clearly show that there are issues that

need to be addressed.

                                  "Clean" Rooms and Workers

       Think of the stereotypical image of a clean room in a high-tech manufacturing plant – all

the people in the "bunny" suits doing precise work on electrical equipment. However, these

"bunny" suits provide little personal protection – they are mostly used to protect the silicon

wafers or other precise circuitry from humans, but do not protect the body or skin from caustic

chemicals (Fisher, Part 1). In addition, the air systems in clean rooms recycle the same

chemically contaminated air over and over (Fisher, Part 1).1 Armida Mesa, who began working

for IBM in the mid-60s, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1985. She had no family history of

the disease and worked in a clean room that had known carcinogens for almost 20 years. Mesa

knows co-workers that have died, and she is now taking part in a lawsuit with other plaintiffs

who worked in IBM clean rooms (Ioffee, Clean Room). Olivia Varela suffered the same

consequences working with dangerous epoxies (Ioffee, Clean Room). Betty White, a woman

from Argentina who worked for Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), noted she never got gloves or

eyewear in her work (qtd. in Ioffee, Clean Room). These women who worked in clean rooms did

not really work in "clean" environments for human health; it was clean only for the precise

materials they worked with. All of these workers are Latinas; minorities are common in the

semiconductor manufacturing fields. Other data from the US Equal Employment Opportunity

Commission also shows that as many as sixty percent of the minority workers in the

semiconductor industry are women (Ioffee, Clean Room). Asians and Latinos are the most

common minorities to be in the lowest pay bracket in their companies, earning only around

                                                                                        Michael G. Smith
                                                                          CAAS 332 / NRE / ENVIRON 336

$23,000 per year compared with a typical manager who earns around $52,000 year (Ioffee,

Clean Room). Aside from dangerous health issues, it also appears that they are not receiving the

appropriate compensation for the potential hazards in their jobs.

           Some workers are taking action. Alida Hernandez formerly worked for IBM in a disk

drive factory and frequently came in contact with known or suspected carcinogens such as

benzene, trichloroethylene and Freon® (Pimentel). Hernandez was later diagnosed with breast

cancer. Ted Smith, the executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, an

environmental advocacy group, notes that the lawsuit directed towards IBM should "give a legal

answer to the question that people have been raising for 20 years" (qtd. in Pimentel). He hopes to

finally have some blame pointed at the corporations. Hernandez also mentions that "had I known

that I was working with anything that could cause cancer, I would have had second thoughts

about going to work there" (qtd. in Fisher, Part 1). She was only given basic instructions for

handling toxic substances, such as what to do if an explosion occurred. Manufacturing

companies do not pay much attention to possible long-term health effects; they attempt to hush

their legal culpability of problems. Unfortunately, many minority workers in the working class

living in Silicon Valley only have clean room work available to them (Ioffee, Clean Room).

Workers are simply exposed to a laundry list of chemicals that may cause serious harm without

even knowing it, and without scientific research, the courts will have to make the culpability


                                   Dangers in Surrounding Neighborhoods

           Another major source of environmental inequality occurs in the neighborhoods

surrounding Silicon Valley manufacturing. However, Silicon Valley manufacturing firms were

first thought to bring growth and jobs without nasty smokestacks (Worth). But in reality, these

    See Appendix A for a diagram of how clean rooms typically work.

                                                                                                      Michael G. Smith
                                                                                        CAAS 332 / NRE / ENVIRON 336

low-income, minority neighborhoods have half of the valley's toxic emissions released in their

area while none are released in the highest income areas (Ioffee, Worth, and Cargo). A study

from Professor Andy Szasz also looked at TRI data from 1989 at sites with the highest toxic

emission releases and compared them to areas of Latinos and other populations of people of

color as well as in low-income areas (qtd. in Worth). Analysis of the data showed that census

tracts with over 23.5 percent Latino populations were at least four hundred percent more exposed

to dangerous emissions than other tracts with less than seven percent Latino populations (qtd. in

Worth).2 Therefore, the water and air supplies of these highly concentrated Latino communities

are much more dangerous. At this point, it is clear that specific emission cases throughout recent

years have shown that these populations unfairly live in much more peril than other groups.

           One of the first cases of neighborhood contamination occurred in the early 80s with

Fairchild Semiconductor and IBM. Underground storage tanks at the facilities were found to

have leaked many gallons of dangerous solvents into the groundwater, which resulted in the

creation of several Superfund sites (Pimentel). In South San Jose, 65,000 residents were affected

by the contamination; investigations between the leaks and health conditions began (Pimentel).

And as time passed, more companies noticed problems with the underground storage tanks and

some remedied the problem by fixing the tanks or using less toxic materials. However, no

scientific link was ever made between the health problems and the continued contamination of

groundwater (Pimentel). Many of these outside communities were planned by semiconductor

companies, and employees did not realize they were also exposed to toxics in their homes. This

actually established a clear link between clean room employees and contamination in nearby

neighborhoods (Worth). The companies all eventually settled outside of court with little

information being released to the public. No one should be forced to live in such dangerous

    Please see Appendix B for a graphical interpretation of Latinos and toxics in Silicon Valley.

                                                                                    Michael G. Smith
                                                                      CAAS 332 / NRE / ENVIRON 336

conditions, and, unfortunately, families shared ill health effects with the workers and other


       However, many technology companies often ensure neighborhoods that they are not

dumping or doing anything else dangerous to their health. AMD assured José Orsua and his

community that there was no danger in a chemical spill found on the company's nearby site even

after he found a dead bird in 1991 (Worth). According to Worth's article "a 1991 estimate [of]

the plume of toxins created by the AMD spill was one and a half miles long and under or near

200 to 300 homes in the San Miguel neighborhood." The spill also occurred near a school that

was over eighty percent children of color with 44 percent Latino. Unfortunately, no legal action

has yet been successful to hold the companies responsible for the health risks and property value

drops in this Sunnyvale, California neighborhood. According to Professor David Pellow in the

same article, the companies only get "a small fine and a little slap on the wrist" for this

environmental inequality in minority neighborhoods.

       Other research shows clear reasons why high-tech industry has moved out of white

communities and into lower-income communities and communities of color. Residents in Palo

Alto, a higher-income community, supported new strict regulations for environmental standards

and many high-tech industrial companies moved out (Park and Pellow 416). In Sonoma County,

another affluent community north of San Francisco, residents opposed all high-tech industry

upon hearing about pollution problems in Silicon Valley (Park and Pellow 416). Data from Park

and Pellow shows that more Superfund sites began appearing in communities of color and

working-class citizens (see Appendix C). Companies had little choice but to continue

manufacturing in minority communities where opposition was minimal, and these groups have

unfairly suffered a greater burden than other groups.

                                                                                     Michael G. Smith
                                                                       CAAS 332 / NRE / ENVIRON 336

       Issues of contamination and pollution in neighborhoods are likely to remain in the future.

Land is a highly demanded commodity in Silicon Valley and residential neighborhoods are

popping up everywhere. However, once fenced off lots near industry, known as brownfields, are

now being sold at discounted prices to developers (Ioffee, Questionable Grounds). According to

Arnold Peters, a policy analyst, these brownfields may be contaminated from high-tech industry,

but no one is spending money to find out if they are or not (qtd. in Ioffee, Questionable

Grounds). People who live near these lots move away if they can afford it, otherwise, they stay

and worry about their health. Many low-income groups or minorities end up in neighborhoods

surrounding these brownfields (Ioffee, Questionable Grounds). In an area where the median

single-family home costs $546,000 (Ioffee, Questionable Grounds), land in any condition can

become valuable to developers and low-income families, and minorities are likely to choose

cheaper housing that may be dangerous to their health.

                                    Activism and Advocacy

       Despite additional safety precautions taken at manufacturing plants, health vulnerabilities

for workers still exist. Some of these precautions in clean rooms include gloves, splash guards,

and face shields, but inhalation and skin absorption risks remain present in many clean rooms

(Fisher, Part 2). There are some workers' groups that have begun to organize in Silicon Valley,

such as by forming the Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety and Health (SCCOSH)

(Pellow 261). These groups are confronting the corporations demanding better working

conditions and initiating lawsuits. Since there are no labor unions representing workers in high-

tech industry, David Pellow suggests that these watchdog groups help address workplace issues

typically covered by unions (261). On the other hand, he says that it is not uncommon for

workers to be harassed or fired at their workplace for requesting safety changes (263). Much

                                                                                   Michael G. Smith
                                                                     CAAS 332 / NRE / ENVIRON 336

work remains to ensure that workers do not endure unsafe working conditions and that reporting

unsafe conditions does not result in job loss.

       After the 1981 Fairchild and IBM chemical leaks, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition

(SVTC) was formed. They have been successful in getting the companies to pay for the cleanup

of spills on their sites (Pellow and Park 74-5). Later, the group worked on the Campaign to Ban

TCE (trichloroethylene) due to its known damage to reproductive systems. There were previous

leaks of similar chemicals from high-tech industry which angered residents. The group later

learned of the Superfund sites in their region and worked with SCCOSH to educate the public on

these issues (Pellow and Park 93). Today, the SVTC has formed the Silicon Valley Health and

Environmental Justice Project (HEJ) "to identify, reduce and prevent peoples' exposure to

hazardous toxics where they live, work and play. Its current focus is on toxic poisoning and

hazards due to the high-tech industry" (Health and Environmental Justice Project). Like many

grassroots environmental justice groups, the HEJ wants to move in the communities to promote

the knowledge of environmental health in all levels of society. Instead of the corporations

informing workers and nearby residents, groups like the SVTC must succeed in providing the

necessary resources to end environmental injustice.


       Environmental justice is not present in these high-tech workplaces or in the nearby

neighborhoods. Minority and lower-class workers often have little choice of job, and they end up

in the "dirty" silicon industry working with chemicals without adequate personal protection.

People from the same low-class live in neighborhoods near these dangerous silicon plants and

suffer great risks from water and air pollution. Advocacy groups are helping workers and local

                                                                                     Michael G. Smith
                                                                       CAAS 332 / NRE / ENVIRON 336

residents live and work safely, but more still needs to be done to convince industry that

additional safety precautions are necessary.

                                     Solutions for the Future

       Many workers in the clean room industry are constantly exposed to carcinogens without

realizing the potential for serious health effects. A large percentage of these workers are Latino

or from other minorities. Perhaps initiatives among minority workers need to be better

implemented, as the HEJ, SCCOSH, and SVTC are too broadly based. Also, language issues

could be a problem, especially for Latinos, and it would likely be helpful to have resources in

Spanish. Moreover, before declaring all chemicals dangerous in the clean room, perhaps more

research is necessary. Swaran J. S. Flora suggests that much scientific research still needs to be

done to find safer ways to handle toxics and determine who is most affected by the toxics (109).

Until all employees have unbiased information about the hazards in their job, there will not be

environmental justice for everyone. It is likely that companies will do nothing until they are

forced to.

       Residents in neighborhoods surrounding high-tech industry suffer similar inequalities

when compared to workers in high-tech industry. These residents are often poor or minority

groups who do not have the necessary background to be knowledgeable on environmental

dangers. Much like worker advocacy groups such as the SCCOSH, the residents also need

groups to make themselves heard, whether they speak English or not. Lower-class citizens do not

deserve to live in polluted neighborhoods while upper-class citizens work with government to

send high-tech industry out of their locale. Superfund sites near residential areas should have the

highest priority for clean up, no matter what the local economic status is. Everyone needs to get

involved and push the industrial corporations to keep environmental issues a top priority.

                                                                                   Michael G. Smith
                                                                     CAAS 332 / NRE / ENVIRON 336

                                         Works Cited

"'Clean' Cyber Industry Not Quite What It Appears." USA Today 13 Jan. 1998, sec. News: 12A.

Fisher, Jim. "Poison Valley (Part 1)." Jul. 30 2001. 26 Nov. 2004

— — —. "Poison Valley (Part 2)." Jul. 31 2001. 26 Nov. 2004

Flora, Swaran J. S. "Possible Health Hazards Associated With The Use of Toxic Metals in
    Semiconductor Industries." Journal of Occupational Health 42 (2000): 105-10.

Health and Environmental Justice Project. "Health and Environmental Justice Project
    Description." Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. n.d. 25 Nov. 2004

Ioffee, Karina, Catherine Worth, and Hillary Cargo. "Silicon Shame." El Andar. 2001. 26 Nov.
     2004 <>.

Ioffee, Karina. "The Clean Room Paradox: The Clean Industry May Be Deadly for High-Tech
     Workers." El Andar. 2001. 26 Nov. 2004

— — —. "On Questionable Grounds: Land Grab Unhindered Despite History of
   Contamination." El Andar. 2001. 26 Nov. 2004

Meuser, Michael. "MAPPING INEQUALITY: Latinos and Toxics in Silicon Valley." El Andar.
   2001. 26 Nov. 2004 <>.

Park, Lisa Sun-Hee, and David N. Pellow. "Racial Formation, Environmental Racism, and the
    Emergence of Silicon Valley." Ethnicities 4.3 (2004): 403-24.

Pellow, David Naguib, and Lisa Sun-Hee Park. The Silicon Valley of Dreams: Environmental
    Injustice, Immigrant Workers, and the High-Tech Global Economy. 1st ed. New York: New
    York University Press, 2002.

Pellow, David Naguib. "High-Tech Environmental Racism: Silicon Valley's Toxic Workplaces."
    Ed. Curtis Stokes and Theresa Meléndez. 1st ed. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State
    University Press, 2003. 249-268.

Pimentel, Benjamin. "IBM Trial Latest Tech Industry Environmental Dispute." San Francisco
   Chronicle 30 Jan. 2004.

                                                                               Michael G. Smith
                                                                 CAAS 332 / NRE / ENVIRON 336

Williams, Eric D. "Environmental Impacts of Microchip Manufacture." United Nations
    University. n.d. 26 Nov. 2004

Worth, Catherine. "The Poisoned Neighborhood: The Clean Industry May Be Deadly for High-
   Tech Workers." El Andar. 2001. 26 Nov. 2004

Zisk, James. "How a Microchip Clean Room Works." El Andar / The Orange County Register,
    Knight-Ridder Tribune. n.d. 27 Nov. 2004

                                                                                 Michael G. Smith
                                                                   CAAS 332 / NRE / ENVIRON 336


                                      Appendix A

                   How a Microchip Clean Room Works

Zisk, James. El Andar / The Orange County Register, Knight-Ridder Tribune. n.d. 27 Nov. 2004

                                      Appendix B

                         MAPPING INEQUALITY:
                    Latinos and Toxics in Silicon Valley

Meuser, Michael. El Andar. 2001. 26 Nov. 2004

                                                                                Michael G. Smith
                                                                  CAAS 332 / NRE / ENVIRON 336

                                      Appendix C


Park, Lisa Sun-Hee, and David N. Pellow. "Racial Formation, Environmental Racism, and the
    Emergence of Silicon Valley." Ethnicities 4.3 (2004): 403-24 [p. 416].


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