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The Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) has finally commissioned the investigation into the potential health hazards of working in chip fabrication plants that it pledged to sponsor a year ago.

The announcement comes five months after the study was originally expected to start.

The Ingram Cancer Center - part of Vanderbilt University, based in Nashville, Tennessee - will undertake the research programme, the US chip trade body said today. The results are not expected to be made public until 2009.

Between now and then, the Center will probe the medical histories of around 85,000 individuals who have worked in wafer fabs during the past 30 years. It will be looking to see if there is any greater incidence of cancer in those people than in the population as a whole.

The announcement that the SIA would fund such a study was made in August 2004, a year in which IBM won cases brought against it by the families of deceased factory workers. The families claimed the cancers that killed their relatives had been contracted after the workers came into contact with hazardous materials in the fabs. They alleged IBM knew about the risks but did nothing to warn its employees.

IBM also settled a number of such cases out of court.

Five years earlier, in 1999, the SIA set up an independent committee of experts to assess the risk. Some 18 months later, the panel concluded there was no evidence to suggest unequivocally an increased risk of cancer among fab workers. However, it also admitted it didn't have sufficient data to investigate fully potential links between levels of exposure to chemicals used in fabs and cancer risk.

The new study will seek to answer that very question. The SIA undoubtedly hopes the Ingram Cancer Center's findings will show no correlation between cancer contraction rates and fab employment. If the reverse is true, it could pave the way for further litigation by families who have lost to cancer loved ones who formerly worked in US chip fabs. ®

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