19 June 2017

This is a Feature, Not a Bug

Over at Bloomberg, we have a bit of history which describes how US Chipmakers dealt with the toxicity of their manufacturing processes by moving overseas, where they could harm brown people and no one would care:
Results in epidemiology often are equivocal, and money can cloud science (see: tobacco companies vs. cancer researchers). Clear-cut cases are rare. Yet just such a case showed up one day in 1984 in the office of Harris Pastides, a recently appointed associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.


SIA, representing International Business Machines Corp., Intel Corp., and about a dozen other top technology companies, established a task force, and its experts flew to Windsor Locks, Conn., to meet Pastides at a hotel near Bradley International Airport. It was Super Bowl Sunday, January 1987. “That was a day I remember being at a tribunal,” Pastides says. The atmosphere “bordered on hostility. I remember being shellshocked.” Soon after the meeting the panel formally concluded that the study contained “significant deficiencies,” according to internal SIA records. Nevertheless, facing public pressure, SIA’s member companies agreed to fund more research.


Pastides felt vindicated. More than that, he considered the entire episode one of the greatest successes in public-health history, as do others. Despite industry skepticism, three scientific studies led to changes that helped generations of women. “That’s almost a fairy tale in public health,” Pastides says.

Two decades later, the ending to the story looks like a different kind of tale. As semiconductor production shifted to less expensive countries, the industry’s promised fixes do not appear to have made the same journey, at least not in full. Confidential data reviewed by Bloomberg Businessweek show that thousands of women and their unborn children continued to face potential exposure to the same toxins until at least 2015. Some are probably still being exposed today. Separate evidence shows the same reproductive-health effects also persisted across the decades.

The risks are exacerbated by secrecy—the industry may be using toxins that still haven’t been disclosed. This is the price paid by generations of women making the devices at the heart of the global economy.


Yet in virtually every study published since the 1990s, Kim read one form or other of the same phrase: The global semiconductor industry had phased out EGEs in the mid-1990s, signaling the end of reproductive-health concerns. The statements made sense. Not only had IBM and other companies publicly announced that the use of EGEs had been discontinued, but the chemicals also had become classified as Category 1 reproductive toxins under international standards, and European regulators had placed them on a list of the most highly toxic chemicals known to science, designating them Substances of Very High Concern.

Still, something nagged at Kim. In focus groups, young South Korean women working in chip plants told Kim’s colleagues it was not uncommon to go months, or even a year, without menstruating. (Some saw these potentially ominous changes to their reproductive systems as blessings, not warnings. It was just easier not to have periods.) As in the U.S., women dominated production jobs in South Korea’s microelectronics industry, which employs more than 120,000 of them, mostly of childbearing age; they’re often recruited right out of high school. Kim and a colleague decided they needed to conduct a new reproductive-health study. They faced a challenge, however, that Pastides and the other U.S. researchers hadn’t, at least on the front end: a lack of industry cooperation.

In 2013 they persuaded a member of South Korea’s parliament to pry loose national health-insurance data. They got five years of physician-reimbursement records through 2012 for women of childbearing age working at plants owned by the country’s three largest microelectronics companies: Samsung, SK Hynix, and LG. Samsung and SK Hynix accounted for the vast majority of women in the study, as the two have long been among the world’s largest chipmakers. The data covered an average of 38,000 women per year. From that number, the researchers looked at the records of those who had gone to doctors for miscarriages.

The results were both undeniable and shocking to Kim, just as they had been for Pastides almost three decades earlier. She found significantly elevated miscarriage rates and a rate for those in their 30s almost as high as in the U.S. factories. And the findings were conservative, because many women don’t go to the doctor for miscarriages, and because production workers couldn’t be separated in the study from those who worked in offices. “This was not the result I had expected,” Kim says.
As an aside here, this is another argument for single payer in some form, it creates a demographic database that is both available and universal that can be used to find problems like these.


After the outcry in the U.S. in the 1990s, chemical companies said they’d changed the formulations for the photoresists and other products they supplied to chipmakers, including those in Asia. But testing data obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek show that changes weren’t made quickly or, in some cases, completely.


Kim, the epidemiologist, says the secrecy of these settlements is a reason there was so little discussion for so long of the risks in chipmaking. “It was not published in academic papers,” she says. “Just some hidden settlements between the companies and some victims.”

Even today, the chipmakers themselves sometimes don’t know what they’re bringing into their facilities and exposing their workers to. That’s what SK Hynix discovered in 2015 after hiring a team of university scientists to assess the toxic risks in two of its plants.

Some of their results were made public in Korean, but many of the findings remain confidential. An extract of the research reviewed by Bloomberg Businessweek shows scientists found that the plants used about 430 different chemical products each. These included more than 130 deemed to be dangerous enough that employees exposed to them must undergo special health checks; those chemicals are called CMR agents—shorthand for carcinogens, mutagens, and reproductive toxins. In addition to benzene and EGEs, they’ve historically included arsenic, hydrofluoric acid, and trichloroethylene.
The ability to directly or indirectly poison unsuspecting employees is one of the goals of globalization.  It's all about labor and regulatory arbitrage, which is why promises of labor, safety, and environmental protections that we hear about whenever they want to push through a trade deal are empty.

Allowing the 1% to f%$# the rest of us is the goal of modern trade deals, so it's no surprise that this is their actual effect.


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