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Five-year probe into hazards of working in fabs

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The Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) is planning to commission an independent study into whether working in a US chip fab increases employees risk of contracting cancer.

The organisation, which represents US chip makers, is currently asking interested parties to submit tenders for the research contract with a view to commencing the study in March next year.

The SIA expects the project to take up to five years to complete. Whatever the duration, the organisation hopes that the study will lay to rest claims that working in fabs can be hazardous to your health.

It's the second time the SIA has probed the issue. In 1999, it set up an independent committee of experts to assess the risk. Some 18 months later, the panel concluded that on the face of it there was no evidence to suggest unequivocally an increased risk of cancer among fab workers. However, it also said that it didn't have sufficient data to investigate potential links between levels of exposure to chemicals and cancer risk.

The upcoming study is an attempt to perform such an investigation, after a Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health review of the data revealed there is sufficient medical information for the investigation to be scientifically meaningful.

According to the SIA, its study will focus on medical data from more than 200,000 people who worked in the chip industry between 1960 and the present.

In February 2004, IBM won a case brought against it by two former workers - Alida Hernandez and James Moore - at its Cottle Road, San Jose hard drive plant. The ex-employees alleged that their cancers had arisen from their exposure to hazardous substances at the plant, and that IBM should have warned them about the risk, which it knew about, they said. The jury, however, unanimously sided with Big Blue.

IBM still faces cases brought against it in New York and Minnesota from former fab employees who have made similar allegations as those levelled by Hernandez and Moore.

IBM mortality records put before the New York court were used as the basis of a controversial report written by Richard Clapp and Rebecca Johnson of Boston University and originally scheduled for publication in the US journal Clinics in Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The journal's published, Reed Elsevier, pulled the paper, proposed by the guest editor, Dr Joe LaDou of the University of California's San Francisco campus. Reed Elsevier and IBM have denied claims made by LaDou that they conspired to block publication of the research report.

IBM subsequently said that court had not sanctioned the public distribution of its records, and that the report's conclusions were questionable since both Clapp and Johnson had appeared as expert witnesses on behalf of the plaintiffs. ®

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