In the U.S., the CHIPS Act has sparked a new wave of hope for the semiconductor industry. While chatter about new multi-billion-dollar fabs is typically positive, experts and activists warn there is something sinister lurking beneath the surface. To reveal it, one must look all the way back to the earliest days of Silicon Valley—and the reason why California’s most lucrative region got its name.
Prior to the 1990s, the U.S. was a semiconductor powerhouse led by the likes of IBM and Intel in Silicon Valley. However, churning out chips had toxic consequences for the environment and fab workers. With the country eyeing a return to semiconductor glory, experts warn it’s imperative not to repeat the mistakes of yesteryear.
While semiconductor technology has advanced dramatically over the decades, exposure laws protecting workers have lagged behind. Indeed, many of the protections in place in the 70s and 80s are the same ones regulatory bodies have in place currently. Clearly, though, workers face exposure to a far different cocktail of chemicals and conditions in today’s chip fabs.
Occupational health attorney and labor advocate Amanda Hawes told The Verge, “Put these protections in place from day one instead of learning the hard way. We’ve been through that once already. Let’s do it right this time.”
The official OSHA website says its permissible exposure limits (PELs) “are outdated and inadequate for ensuring protection of worker health.” As such, chipmakers following legal standards are likely not doing enough to protect workers. The alternative is relying on stricter standards put forth by industry bodies like SEMI, SIA, or the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union.
“Legal doesn’t mean safe when it comes to toxics in this industry,” says Etana Jacobi, a senior campaign lead with CWA, “and a focus on compliance with existing law will not keep workers and community members safe.”
The environment suffers from many of the same exposure problems. In Silicon Valley’s chip glory days, TCA, a known carcinogen, leaked from IBM’s underground storage tanks and polluted drinking water for San Jose residents. Meanwhile, numerous Intel sites in the area have been designated Superfund sites on the National Priorities List for cleanup. Harsh substances like arsenic, lead, and chloroform have been found in hazardous levels where many American chip plants once operated. Now, experts fear these mistakes are waiting to be repeated as the U.S. ramps up its chip operations once again.
The chip industry is always evolving. With more than $230 billion in private investments announced since the CHIPS Act was signed, the pace of chip production in the U.S. is expected to increase rapidly over the coming decades. Likewise, advanced chipmaking technology is evolving faster than most people can keep up. This means more and more new chemicals are being introduced more frequently than regulators can keep up. So, what’s the solution?
Activists like Hawes are calling on chipmakers to sign binding documents that outline how they will protect workers and communities. Likewise, they’re urging chip firms to move away from the harsh chemicals that lead to serious health problems and have damaging consequences for the environment. Doing so is possible but takes time and hefty research investments to accomplish.
Intel is one positive example of this. The chipmaker is part of the Clean Electronics Production Network and is working collaboratively with experts to develop more protective occupational health and safety guidance committees for its plants.
In addition, automation promises to play a greater role in chipmaking as technology improves and becomes more capable. While this helps keep workers out of harm’s way, there is no way to fully remove human workers from potentially harmful areas. So, as the U.S. reinvigorates its chip industry, chipmakers must take care to ensure toxic mistakes of the past are not repeated.