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Leak No Evil

Fairchild plant
Under Wraps: A closed Fairchild plant and a gag order have kept many details of a now-legendary toxic-comtamination case from public view for 15 years.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

A 15-year-old gag order on the once-infamous Fairchild well-water contamination case may be hindering conservationists' efforts to call attention to a new toxic threat.

By Traci Hukill

JULIANA ROSS WASN'T even a year old when a group of neighbors met at her parents' home one evening in February 1982 to discuss the alarming incidence of birth defects in their community. But she was already something of a celebrity.

Born with a heart defect that nearly killed her, near a well contaminated by chemical solvents, Juliana became a symbol to a worried Silicon Valley of the computer chip industry's invisible hazards. When her mother, Lorraine, spoke up about the many birth defects she'd noticed in her South San Jose neighborhood, a wildfire of publicity was ignited, which ultimately led to a statewide $1 billion cleanup program.

At Jeff and Lorraine Ross' house that evening in February, neighbors told stories of miscarriages and children born with congenital eye defects, urinary tract defects and many heart problems. In all, the people of the Los Paseos neighborhood reported 31 birth defects and 34 miscarriages.

A leak from an underground storage container at the Fairchild Camera & Instrument Corporation's manufacturing plant on Bernal Road had contaminated Great Oaks Well No. 13, and people were nervously putting two and two together. The nearness of the unsafe well--contaminated with the powerful toxic solvents dichloroethylene (DCE) and trichloroethane (TCA)--and the high number of miscarriages and birth defects in the area seemed linked by more than mere coincidence.

The community's suspicions proved correct. A study conducted several years later by the California Department of Health Services revealed that pregnant women in the Los Paseos neighborhood suffered twice as many spontaneous abortions in 1980-81 as did a group whose water was believed to be clean, and they were three times more likely to bear children with birth defects.

By the time the study emerged in 1985, the Fairchild plant had been closed two years and a class action lawsuit filed against Fairchild by 271 residents of the Los Paseos neighborhood was under way. The two sides' lawyers reached a multimillion-dollar settlement in 1986, the exact terms of which are unknown because presiding judge Charles Gordon of the Superior Court issued a gag order. A great silence settled over the subject of the Fairchild case, punctuated only by intermittent reports of how the county's cleanup effort was going.

15 Years After

IN THE MORE than 15 years since news of the Fairchild chemical leak first broke, many of the Los Paseos families remained in the area and tried to get on with their lives in spite of medical problems that will never go away. Others have since moved on. The Rosses moved to Gilroy, where 16-year-old Juliana is now a high school student.

"She'll have heart problems all her life," Lorraine Ross says. "She's already had two heart surgeries, and she's under the care of a cardiologist."

Ross guards her family's privacy, as anyone in her position would. She still gets calls from the press four or five times a year and wishes they would stop.

"We just want to get on with our lives," she says, her voice sounding worn and tired.

Patricia Cichowski, who along with husband Ronald and daughter Cristal Marie is listed in court documents as a plaintiff in the suit against Fairchild, resides in the same Los Paseos house where she lived in 1982 and still has many of the same neighbors she had then. Like Ross, Cichowski is guarded, but for a different reason.

"Let's put it this way: I was reprimanded severely by the judge on the day of the hearing because I let the baby-sitter know where I'd be, not even what I'd be doing." She laughs nervously. "I'm afraid I've already said too much."

The two families' forced reticence is unfortunate. The Fairchild case was the canary in the coal mine to both the computer industry and the residents of Silicon Valley, a signal to both groups that there were potential dangers in what experts had called a "clean industry."

Now, however, the story seems to have faded into the background of the local consciousness. Most newcomers to this fast-growing valley have never even heard of the Fairchild case. And while the valley's industrial focus has turned from manufacturing to software design, some public-health advocates fear that a new toxic threat is emerging.

Toxic Ether

ENVIRONMENTALISTS are now trying to draw public attention to a ground-water threat from compounds known as glycol ethers, which have been linked in studies to spontaneous abortions, commonly known as miscarriages.

Like DCE and TCA, the contaminants found in Great Oaks Well No. 13, glycol ethers were found in solvents used in the manufacture of silicon chips, until the chemicals were banned from the industry following a number of studies indicating their high toxicity.

Shanna Swan, a leading epidemiologist with the Department of Health Services, worked on a study funded by the Semiconductor Industry Association and carried out by UC-Davis and UC-Berkeley. Published in 1995, the study's results suggested that women making silicon chips in so-called clean rooms, where they were regularly exposed to glycol ethers, had a more difficult time getting pregnant and faced three times the risk of miscarriage compared to women not working in the clean rooms. Swan's research team determined that glycol ethers were the most likely culprits.

Although banned now, glycol ethers may have leaked into the ground water as TCA and DCE did--and they move much faster.

"The point is, we believe glycol ethers are also spreading throughout the ground-water basin," says the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition's Ted Smith. "Now we're trying to work with other concerned people to get the appropriate government agencies to do extra monitoring."

It could be difficult. Industry leaders are beginning to grumble about the excessive costs of cleanup. Some regulatory agencies in turn decry past administrations for overreacting. And as for the majority of the people--well, they tend to be forgetful.

Studies like Swan's examination of glycol ethers make their threat seem too removed and complicated to be dangerous. But after the Fairchild incident, it's hard not to wonder if they are the first crooked notes of the canary's faltering song.

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From the Sept. 11-17, 1997 issue of Metro.

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