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A Toxics-Free Future

NGO Platform: electronics 'hazardous from inception'

Ted Smith, from IPEN Participating Organization International Campaign for Responsible Technology (ICRT), wrote the following op-ed, which appeared in Chemical Watch:

Global Business Briefing, December 2015/January 2016 / North America, Asia Pacific, Electrical & electronics

Those of us who grew up in Silicon Valley have known since its origins that the electronics sector has been a chemical handling industry, muted by its self-promotion as the “clean industry”.

In the 1970s, the Electronics Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (Ecosh) published a series of reports identifying the many hazardous substances used in manufacturing electronics and discovered that many workers had developed illnesses related to their toxic exposures.  These findings were later chronicled by an investigative series by the San Jose Mercury News called “The Chemical Handlers” which was published 6 April 1980.

Further attention to the toxic hazards was prompted by the discovery of widespread groundwater pollution in the 1980s. This was attributed to leaking underground storage tanks at many of the flagship high-tech companies. It shocked residents in the area and led to a California Health Department study that confirmed that the birth defect rates in the most affected neighbourhoods were significantly higher than average.

The US EPA responded by naming 29 of the most polluted sites as Superfund sites, requiring strict cleanup measures. Engineers and industry officials who were paying attention learned the details of the health hazards in the 1984 publication, by Technology Review, of Dr Joseph LaDou’s article "The not so clean business of making chips."

Three major epidemiological studies conducted by university researchers in cooperation with semiconductor companies all found elevated rates of miscarriages in female production workers in the 1980s and 1990s. A study based on IBM’s Corporate Mortality File of more than 30,000 workers found elevated rates of breast, brain and blood cancers.

Over the past several decades, Silicon Valley companies have had to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup and compensation costs. This lead some to assert that executives had finally learned that prevention was less expensive than cleanup. In fact, some US-based high-tech companies have helped in the effort to phase out a handful of highly toxic materials used in manufacturing, such as tricholoethylene, some glycol ethers and chlorofluorocarbons.

Similar patterns emerging in Asia

Recent revelations have confirmed suspicions that the same patterns of health hazards that were discovered in the US are now appearing throughout Asia and beyond:

  • a recent court decision in Taiwan awarded more than $18m to workers and residents harmed by toxic exposure;
  • following landmark court decisions in South Korea, Samsung has agreed to provide more than $80m to compensate scores of workers who developed cancers while at work;
  • advocates for workers’ health have recently joined with human rights advocates to focus greater attention on workplace hazards.  A recent report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes states: “I am afraid that many workers at Samsung Electronics have fallen victim to priorities that place profits before human rights. Victims, and family members of those now deceased, shared common stories of grave and irreversible health impacts including leukemia, lymphoma, brain cancer, breast cancer, thyroid cancer, miscarriage, hormonal complications and other diseases. The victims claim that they used or were otherwise exposed to hazardous substances every day, sometimes for 12 hours a day, with only one or two days off per month.”
  • investigations by NGOs and governments have confirmed widespread dumping of hazardous electronic waste in Asia and Africa, which is causing much harm; and
  • investigations by NGOs in China have documented enormous environmental pollution by electronics sub-contractors and have traced the contractors back to their brands, demanding that they reign them in.

Civil society responds

In response to the growing concerns that electronics hazards had in fact been outsourced to the developing world, the UN developed a new initiative through the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (Saicm) which focuses on “Hazardous substances within the lifecycle of electrical and electronic products.”

Starting in Vienna in March 2011, this initiative has created a bold set of recommendations for cleaning up the lifecycle of electronics – from design to production to end of life. It places particular emphasis on phasing out the most hazardous materials and providing improved protections for the workers in the meantime. These recommendations were reinforced at the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM4) in October in Geneva.

Saicm has spurred other related initiatives. In October 2012, the American Public Health Association endorsed a resolution on “Improving Occupational and Environmental Health in the Global Electronics Industry”. This was based largely on the Saicm recommendations, particularly the right to know, prevention through design and improved health surveillance.

In January, the International Campaign for Responsible Technology (ICRT) and Good Electronics convened over 60 representatives of civil society and government agencies from more than 15 countries at the Mercy Center in California.

Those who attended adopted A challenge to the global electronics industry to adopt safer and more sustainable products and practices and eliminate hazardous chemicals, exposures and discharges. This has since been endorsed by hundreds of civil society groups around the world.  The challenge is framed around human rights protections and has six key points:

  • be transparent;
  • use safer chemicals;
  • protect workers – focusing on increased health surveillance and improved industrial hygiene monitoring;
  • guarantee participation;
  • protect communities and the environment; and
  • compensate and remediate for harm to people and the environment.

The NGOs have followed up with an implementation guide Meeting the Challenge and have asked industry representatives to work with them to develop baseline data to measure compliance with the recommendations.

Electronics industry responds

During the past few years, some electronics brands have taken steps to address the growing occupational and environmental health concerns:

  • Seagate has pioneered a reporting regimen with all of its sub-contractors which requires them to report full materials disclosure to a central data repository, so it now has full visibility of chemical usage in its supply chain;
  • Hewlett Packard has adopted the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals tool to carry out alternatives assessments to help promote the adoption of safer chemicals in their supply chain;
  • Apple has banned the use of benzene and n-hexane in it final assembly factories and the use of halogens in it products.
  • trade group the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) has launched a chemicals management task force to identify gaps in current practices and to develop new initiatives to promote the use of safer chemicals.

As more electronics brands and their suppliers pursue the goal of safer chemicals, a key question is emerging: is the chemical industry up to the challenge of developing truly green chemicals that can do the job necessary for safe high-tech production and products?

Ted Smith is also the founder and former Executive Director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.
The views expressed in contributed articles are those of the expert authors and are not necessarily shared by Chemical Watch.