I dont believe in coincidence. Coincidence is design I cannot yet see. So when my wife turned on the evening news while I was reading Norman Mailer, I wasnt surprised by the subsequent chain of events. I had just absorbed one of Mailers pointed observations on corporate awareness: The corporation, by its nature, is as blind as it is powerful. Spiritually blind, morally blind. As a collective entity, it is worse than any of the individuals who make it up. I was thinking that much of this blindness is deliberate, that corporations work hard at keeping the blinders on when its not in their interest to see. Just then, a story about IBM came on. Synchronicity.
It was a story I had covered in these pages exactly one year ago. A good many people who worked in IBMs clean rooms making miraculous microcircuitry believed they had contracted cancer as a result of long-term chemical exposure. Two lawsuits were filed.
Now, as the trial was drawing near, the newsman reported over 100 people sick, or dying, or dead, and more than 20 afflicted children in whose parents the seeds of tragedy had lain dormant, only to be made manifest in their infants as birth defects and grisly deformities.
True to Mailers assessment, in the face of this unimaginable suffering, the corporation adopted a convenient blindness. We do not believe that any of the illnesses that people claim they contracted while working for IBM were the result of working for IBM, a spokesman said.
What the remark lacked in compassion it made up for in dismissiveness. Not a single illness was related! What were the odds on that, I pondered. Flip a coin 100 times, and it always comes up heads? Not likely. Over 100 people working in a chemical stew and none of their health problems were related to their work environment. This coin must have had two heads.
I felt insulted; not only was the remark self-serving and insensitive, but it wasnt useful. In any dispute, the only useful course is to look at your own part, because thats the only piece you can correct. Thats where the learning is. Thats where change occurs. IBM was saying it had no part, but this contention bumped up against the limits of probability, and to simply ignore the possibility of involvement seemed, to me, intensely immoral.
I called IBM, wanting to ask a thousand inconvenient questions. The company was naturally reluctant to speak about pending litigation. I was asked to submit written
questions, which I did. The responses were not available as of this writing but will be presented in a future column. Then I called the plaintiffs lawyer.
Amanda Hawes has been trying to pull the tightly held blinders off the semiconductor industry for 20 years. Raised by social activist parents, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Wellesley College and obtained her law degree from Harvard.
Why has progress taken so long? I wanted to know. Because industry has been stonewalling at every turn. It works like this. We say: Look, people are getting sick and dying. Industry says: Thats unfortunate, but there is no scientific evidence linking clean room activity to cancer. We say: OK, lets do a study on your employees and find out. Industry says: We dont need to do a study because we have no scientific evidence linking clean room activity with cancer.
Hawes view was corroborated by Dr. Joseph Ladou, director of the International Center for Occupational Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. According to Ladou, industry refuses to release health data and maintains that its chemical processes are proprietary, so the precise chemical mix, exact exposure levels, and long- term health effects remain largely shrouded.
What is known unequivocally is that there is a rising body count, Hawes said. Officially, the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) denies any connection between clean room chemical usage and illness. But in an article published in Electronic Business magazine in March of this year, Lee Neal, the SIAs director of occupational health, safety, and environmental programs, admitted that the industry had no data to refute the cancer allegations.
Definitive data has been difficult to acquire. An attempt made earlier this year by the California Department of Health Services to collect such information was rejected by Intel and IBM, according to Dr. Ladou. The proposed study would have compared state health records against those of the semiconductor industry to identify patterns of increased infirmity. Jim Morris, writing for the Houston Chronicle, stated that an Intel lobbyist reportedly declared he might as well take a gun and shoot myself as provide plaintiffs attorneys with the potential lawsuit fodder such a study might provide.
The reasoning seems to be: no science, no problems. Those whom Hawes represents suspect that industry prefers not to know.
The grounds for the determined rebuff are not fully clear, because related data is already available from a number of different sources, including IBM. According to Hawes, Amoco did an in-house investigation which confirmed a high rate of chemically induced brain cancer in its Illinois facility. The grassroots Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition reports that Digital conducted an epidemiological study in 1986 and found miscarriage rates for semiconductor workers in Hudson, Massachussetts, at two times the expected rate. The results of a similar study by IBM were leaked in 1992, according to the coalition. IBM found that one in three pregnant semiconductor workers exposed to glycol ethers had miscarriages.
Are glycol ethers still is use? I asked Hawes. No one knows for sure except the manufacturers, and theyre not making their records available. Its in the industrys interest to give the appearance of being self- policing, so theyre constantly saying, we didnt do anything wrong, and we promise not to do it again.
IBMs stonewalling apparently extended to its own employees. As reported on San Franciscos KGO Television, former IBM chemist Gary Adams saw six of his colleagues die from brain cancer, lymphoma, and leukemia. For an astonishing 12 years, he tried to get IBMs medical staff just to sit down and discuss the issue with him and to provide workers with periodic medical screening. IBM refused. Ignorance may not be bliss, but its less actionable.
Imagine, Hawes said, that your job requires you to handle substances marked with a skull and crossbones and that you become ill. Your eyes water incessantly, your nose runs, your skin erupts in angry rashes, and you discover you are sterile.
It happened to Linda Foutche, reported CBS News. Still, she probably felt more fortunate than most. After all, she worked for IBM, a company founded on the principle of respect for the individual. IBM would listen; IBM would help.
When she brought her condition to the attention of management, said the news report, IBM advised Foutche that her problem was not related to activities in the clean room but rather originated in her head. The company sent her to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist, to IBMs chagrin, reached a slightly different diagnosis than her employer. Hawes has a letter from the psychiatrist indicating that Ms. Foutche suffered from a chronic medical illness caused by exposure to toxic substances in her work environment. IBM, Hawes noted, promptly quit sending referrals to the contrary doctor.
Whats going on, asks Hawes, when those in charge tell you these complaints are not work-related, that your problems are all in your head, and that this is the clean industry where everything is OSHA approved? Whats been going on is that workers have been told these things by people they trusted. The upshot has been that they have continued to work under such conditions and then later, maybe even years later, their health deteriorates beyond anything they could possibly have expected.
Amanda Hawes knows many such stories. She shares them in the enduring hope that the suffering she has witnessed may have meaning, that broken bodies may yet scale the walls of intransigent denial and compel overdue change.
One person not likely to make that ascent is Lee Leth, a former IBM engineer. Leth is dying, largely confined to a hospital bed in his home. A man who climbed mountains now cannot climb stairs. In a sense, his ravaged body has become his final gift, his testimony, his evidence cruelly earned. In his fifth decade of life, his body is imploding. By corporeal measurement, he is much diminished, robbed of his proud height, filled beyond repair with rogue cells that gnaw his bones like carpenter ants. But his spirit, Hawes says, remains untouched. It is there, just beyond the painpatient, determined, seeking accountability from his employer and deliverance for those who follow. He wishes no one harm. If his death is to have meaning, he will keep others from a similar end.
Amanda Hawes will be the keeper of Leths story and will ensure it is retold after he can no longer tell it. She believes his condition is a result of broken trust, that the guardians of Lees welfare misled him, assuring him of what they could not possibly know because they carefully avoided knowing such things. Safety was assumed, she said, not tested, and thus was pledged without evidence or surety. Clean rooms are clean to protect the product from the people, not the people from the product, she notes. Theres something wrong when the next generation of chips is deemed more important than the next generation of children.
And so she is taking the only avenue left to her clients and suing IBM and a number of chemical providers. If she wins, the impact will be wide-ranging because the havoc caused by the thoughtless introduction of deadly chemicals ranges beyond repair.
Chemicals have always been a Faustian bargain. Consider that before 1920 the only things human beings held in their bodies were what God, nature, and millions of years of evolution had intended.
Today, every human being on earth carries at least 500 measurable chemicals in his or her body.
In just the span of a lifetime, the entire human race has been irreparably polluted. If the chemical industry had deliberately tried to poison the entire planet, it could not have done a more thorough job.
But by far the most astonishing fact is that, in spite of an enormous body of evidence to the contrarythe documented consequences of using PCBs, Dioxin, DES, DDT; the growing cancer rates and dropping fertility; the neurological disorders, birth defects, and ozone holeschemical manufacturers and their customers steadfastly maintain that this unprecedented chemical infestation has benign health impacts.
Spiritually blind, morally blind, Mailer had said of corporations. Hawes would argue that being blind is much more accountable than refusing to see.
Epilogue Lee Leth died the morning of April 21, 1999. His last days were spent at home with his family. Although Leth was able to give his deposition before dying, like so many things in this sad and difficult case, it was not without struggle. Given Leths failing health, Amanda Hawes went to court to ask that his testimony be given on April 1. She presented the court with a declaration from Leths doctor indicating he had only weeks to live. According to Hawes, IBMs attorneys appeared in court on March 30 to oppose the request. They claimed they had no attorneys available to cover the deposition prior to April
9. The judge, Hawes said, stared at the IBM attorneys in disbelief, read the doctors declaration into the record, and ordered the deposition. It was given on April 2.