SIA cancer debate heats up

SIA responds to recommendations from advisory committee, plots two-pronged course

Hank Hogan

SAN JOSE, CA-The long-run ning debate about whether or not semiconductor cleanrooms cause health problems has heated up again.

The latest flare-up began with a March 20th news release from the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA; San Jose).

In the release, the SIA announced several actions in response to recommendations from a scientific advisory committee looking into cancer concerns.

First, the SIA said it would conduct a review to determine if a retrospective cancer study could be done. Second, the industry group said it would work on common job descriptions and language so that future health monitoring could be done.

Worker and environmental advocacy groups, like the San Jose-based Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), were less than impressed with these efforts.

Can working in semicondutor cleanrooms lead to health problems? The question continues to add fuel to an already fiery debate. Some say there is not enough evidence of increased cancer risks, while others say the possibility is serious enough to warrant further research.
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“They say there is no conclusive proof that our chemicals are causing any health problems, and therefore since there is no conclusive proof, we won't do the study. Talk about putting the cart before the horse,” says SVTC executive director Ted Smith.

“We are trying not to only act on the critics, but the science,” counters SIA spokesperson Molly Tuttle. “There is no affirmative evidence of increased cancer risk, and insufficient data exists at the time to conclude whether exposure to chemicals or other hazardous materials has or has not increased the risk of cancer.”

The latest SIA handling of the health question has not been as spotless as the cleanrooms themselves. The advisory committee's report was presented to the SIA in October, but the industry group didn't announce any action until March. That delay, Tuttle says, was procedural, a result of the SIA board meeting only three times a year.

However, there's also the fact that the formation of the advisory committee was announced in 1999-a full three years before the March 20th news release. Also, the committee report itself has not yet been made public, although an executive summary was provided a few days after the release.

Taken together, these actions look to industry critics like an attempt to stall or hide the truth.

As for the committee report, different conclusions can be drawn. Professor David Wegman of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell chaired the committee. The report, as Wegman notes, states that there is no definitive evidence of a greater cancer risk due to cleanrooms.

As Wegman also notes, the report states that there is no evidence that there isn't a problem and that a full-blown study should be undertaken. Similar ambiguity show up in a report on cancer at National Semiconductor's Greenock, Scotland plant. Done by the United Kingdom's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and released at the end of 2001, the report says the cancer possibility is serious enough to warrant further research.

The rapidly changing nature of semiconductor processing, the multiple chemicals used and the relatively poor record keeping will make any study difficult to achieve. That means the health debate wil continue.


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