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Double Trouble

[whitespace] Amanda Hawes, Ted Smith's wife, takes worker complaints about high-tech toxins into the courtroom

By Jim Rendon

WHILE TED SMITH has built a career raising a stink over chip-industry pollution, his wife, Amanda Hawes, has built her own powerful reputation by working over the same industry in the courtroom. Hawes, an occupational health attorney, has watched a flood of industry workers come through her office door complaining about everything from headaches and miscarriages to cancer. Now she's fighting back with class action lawsuits.

The suits filed here and in New York state accuse IBM and a number of chemical manufacturers of exposing workers to a slew of toxic chemicals without taking any precautions, or even notifying workers of the hazards they faced every day on the job. Unlike other complaints that have linked poor ventilation and chemical exposure to miscarriages, this suit alleges that 50 people in the valley suffered from cancer because they worked in a toxic stew.

The list of ailments these former high-tech workers suffer from reads like a worst nightmare of modern medicine: leukemia, multiple lymphoma and ovarian, vaginal, breast, brain, lung and kidney cancer. Many of the plaintiffs have already passed away from these illnesses, while others are still hanging on.

"These people were led to believe that the materials they worked with were safe and tested," Hawes says. "They were not. These people were human guinea pigs." By press time, IBM had not returned phone calls.

Two decades ago, the semiconductor industry was very different than it is today. Even the clean rooms were a toxic mess. "We were drenched in chemicals," says Pat Lamborne, who was an assembler for National Semiconductor in the late 1970s. "We didn't even have the right to ask what chemicals we were working with." After years of exposure, Lamborne, like many other workers, began to experience problems. "I had huge red cysts on my face," she explains. "The chemicals degreased skin like they degreased everything else."

Even back in the 1970s, Hawes began to see problems with this supposedly clean industry. When she worked with the Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety and Health, people came through the door with a problem no one had seen before--increased chemical sensitivity. In addition to headaches, rashes and a loss of the sense of smell, many people found that when they were exposed to chemicals in any quantity, they became extremely ill. Many of them had to quit working the manufacturing plants because they simply could not stand being around the solvents.

Joe LaDou, a physician and professor at the University of California, San Francisco, had a practice in Sunnyvale in the 1970s, where he treated people with work-related health problems. What he saw was a steady stream of people from the semiconductor industry: women who had suffered miscarriages, and workers who had severe respiratory problems, headaches and the same heightened chemical sensitivity that Hawes had seen. People were simply exposed to more chemicals in a work week than their bodies could handle.

Though Hawes' suit alleges that sloppy and negligent working conditions resulted in deadly cancer for employees, that may be hard to prove in a court of law. There are no studies to turn to. "Every industry has a health study," LaDou says. "This industry is a half-century old, and no one has yet begun looking at the health issue."

Though some studies have been conducted on miscarriages and other reproductive problems, the industry has always avoided the specter of cancer. When the Environmental Protection Agency came up with funding for a cancer study, the industry balked, LaDou says, and that put an end to the study.

By filing the first major suits that link semiconductor manufacturing to cancer, Hawes may go a long way toward creating the public pressure necessary to force the government to start making demands of an industry it has always tiptoed around.

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From the September 24-30, 1998 issue of Metro.

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