The dark side of making computers. (pollution and toxic chemicals in PC manufacturing)(includes list of information resources) (Compute's Getting Started with Computers, Health, & the Environment )
Many people think that PC manufacturing is an inherently clean industry. In fact, manufacturers of PCs are among the biggest polluters around. That's because the processes used to make chips, printed circuit boards, and disk drives involve huge quantities of toxic chemicals. In the 1980s, people living in Silicon Valley, the heart of the U.S. electronics industry, were shocked to discover that their booming community has the country's highest density of federal Superfund toxic-waste sites. Similar problems afflict other chip-making centers in the United States and overseas.
Toxins in Chip Making
How are toxic chemicals used to make PCs? It all begins with the chip, the basic building block of computer devices.
First, the manufacturer must mask the parts of the chip that won't contain circuits, using a masking chemical dissolved in glycol ether, a reproductive toxin. Channels for the circuits are then etched into the chip with hydrofluoric acid, an acid so corrosive that it dissolves human flesh on contact.
Next, the chip is doped--implanted with materials that produce desirable electrical properties--using supertoxic gases such as arsine. Then various metals, including toxic arsenic, cadmium, and lead, are laid down in the etched, doped channels.
All along the way, chips are rinsed with volatile solvents such as methyl chloroform, trichloroethylene (TCE), toluene, benzene, and acetone to remove grease and grit. Most of these are known to cause cancer.
The liquid wastes from chip making are stored in underground tanks. But many tanks leak toxic waste into local ground-water supplies. Toxic gas leaks are also a problem. In 1992, a neighborhood in San Jose was evacuated after a toxic yellow cloud poured out from a local plant.
Chips and Worker Health
People who work on chip assembly lines run serious health risks. Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco have found that systemic poisoning causes almost half the illnesses among chip-production workers, who already suffer a rate of occupational illness nearly three times that of manufacturing workers in other industries.
Women workers are routinely exposed to chemicals classified by the EPA as reproductive toxins. In 1986, DEC discovered that the miscarriage rate among its female production employees was twice that of its female clerical employees. IBM found a similar rate in 1992.
In the 1980s, hundreds of women working at the GTE Lenkurt electronics plant in New Mexico developed unusual cancers and reproductive problems.
PC Makers Help the Ozone Layer
Until recently, Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are blamed for the deterioration of the earth's ozone layer, were used to clean chips, PCBs, and disk drive platters. In fact, the highest volume of atmospheric CFCs ever measured was recorded in 1987 over an IBM plant in San Jose.
PC makers are beating the CFC problem, however. Last year Apple Computer announced that it had stopped using CFCs to clean electronic assemblies and manufacturing equipment. Toshiba, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and other companies have announced similar initiatives. Most companies plan to eliminate CFCs completely from PC manufacturing before 1995. That IBM plant in San Jose now emits no CFCs at all; Big Blue is cleaning its disk drives and PCBs with plain old soap and water.
A grassroots environmental organization called the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition has been working for more than a decade to help the PC industry clean up its act. SVTC and its sister organization, the Campaign for Responsible Technology; persuaded Congress to make the development of safe, non-polluting chip-manufacturing techniques one of the key missions of Sematech, the federally funded semiconductor R&D consortium. An earth-friendly green chip may not be far off.