Workers groups in South Korea report an unusually high incidence of cancers and other serious diseases among employees at Samsung’s semiconductor and other electronics plants. While the company denies any link, the pattern of illnesses is disturbingly similar to that seen at semiconductor facilities in the U.S. and Europe.
To experts in health issues relating to high-tech electronics workers, the story emerging from Samsung’s manufacturing plants in South Korea is distressingly familiar: An unusually high incidence of leukemia, lymphoma, brain cancer, and other serious diseases appears to exist among relatively young people who have worked in Samsung’s semiconductor and other chemically-intensive manufacturing plants. While direct cause and effect are difficult to prove, the South Korea situation presents striking similarities to patterns of illness seen at semiconductor plants in the United States and elsewhere in decades past.
In 2007, a 22-year-old woman named Yu-mi Hwang, who had worked at Samsung’s Giheung semiconductor plant while still in high school, died of leukemia. A year later, a 30-year-old woman who shared a workstation with Yu-mi died, also of leukemia. In March 2010, a 23-year-old woman named Park Ji-Yeon, who had worked at Samsung’s On-Yang semiconductor plant since 2004, also died of leukemia, three years after her diagnosis. In 2005, a 27-year old woman named Han Hae-kyoung, who had worked in a Samsung LCD plant since 1995, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and is now seriously disabled. Another woman, Lee Yoon-jeong, who worked for Samsung in semiconductor production between 1997 and 2003, was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2010 at age 30. As of March 2011, Korean labor and occupational health activists have counted 120 such cases of severe illnesses and 46 resulting fatalities among Samsung workers.
According to Dr. Jeong-ok Kong, an occupational health physician who has tracked these cases for the Korea Institute of Labor Safety and Health (KILSH) and other nonprofit organizations, most of the workers who have become ill with serious diseases that could be linked to their jobs worked in Samsung’s semiconductor plants. Initial studies by KILSH and an organization known as SHARPS (Supporters of Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry) have found 74 people who worked in Samsung semiconductor plants and became seriously ill; at least 26 of them have died. Fifteen additional workers who worked in LCD plants became seriously ill with these diseases, and at least five of them have died, according to Kong; three others worked in cell phone plants, and two of them have died.
“The victims we have been finding are concentrated in several ‘old’ and manual facilities,” said Kong, whose work on behalf of electronics-industry workers won a 2010 American Public Health Association Occupational Health and Safety Section Award.
“SHARPS began collecting information on these cases in 2007, but the victims have work histories that go back before 2000,” said Kong, speaking by phone from South Korea. Most of the workers known to SHARPS to have become ill were born in the 1980s and 1990s. Many were diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses in their 20s and 30s, many within well under ten years of beginning work at Samsung. Kong said similar illnesses were now being reported by workers at other Korean electronics firms.
Samsung, one of the world’s four largest electronics manufacturers, ranks among the top 40 companies on the Fortune 500 and is the largest company in South Korea. With its products accounting for about one-fifth of the nation’s exports, Samsung is extremely powerful in South Korea, with more than $172 billion in sales in 2010. In addition to its extensive electronics businesses, the Samsung Group includes chemical manufacturing, heavy industry and construction, financial services (including life insurance and a credit card business), hotels, resorts, and a medical center. Samsung Electronics’ 2009-2010 sustainability report lists 157,701 employees, 80,115 of whom are listed in the “production” sector in South Korea; but it does not list how many work directly in manufacturing operations.
According to Kong, despite repeated requests by SHARPS, the Korean Ministry of Labor has not made available information showing how many Samsung employees work in manufacturing operations vs. white collar jobs; Samsung has also not provided such information. That these numbers are not public is not surprising as such details have also not been available at the initiation of epidemiological studies of the semiconductor industry in the U.S. and the UK. But it means there is no available count of the number of Samsung employees who work directly in jobs that would expose them to hazardous chemicals, which complicates efforts to establish the significance of the reported cancers and other serious illnesses.
The Samsung workers diagnosed with serious illnesses that may be linked to their employment worked in a variety of operations, according to Kong. Some worked on printed circuit boards for LCD screens; others worked in various aspects of semiconductor fabrication, including chip burning (a process that tests semiconductors by subjecting them to high heat and voltage), ion implantation, and using x-rays to check the quality of chips. While there is a lack of firmly verifiable data about the identity of all the substances used in these processes, what is known is that they involve dozens of chemicals that include organic solvents, among them benzene, and heavy metals, including lead.
Benzene and other volatile organic compounds used widely in semiconductor and other electronics manufacturing also include trichloroethylene (TCE) and methylene chloride, which are associated with cancer and nervous system damage and are also known to affect developing embryos. Benzene is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a confirmed human carcinogen. It is known to cause leukemia and dangerous blood disorders including aplastic anemia and thrombocytopenia, a disease that interferes with blood-clotting, from which at least one Samsung worker is suffering. Benzene is also known to cause cerebral edema and kidney disorders. Exposure to TCE has also been linked to elevated levels of certain cancers, including brain cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma. Lead, mercury, and other metals used commonly in semiconductor and other electronics manufacturing are known neurotoxicants. Arsenic, also used widely in electronics production processes, is toxic to blood cells and carcinogenic.
Most of these processes involving hazardous chemicals take place in so-called “clean rooms” - manufacturing facilities where the enclosed environment is engineered to remove dust and other particles that can damage sensitive equipment such as semiconductor chips and other high-tech components. What makes this potentially significant is that air in clean rooms re-circulates rapidly. This keeps dust and other particles away from sensitive equipment and products. (Those head-to-toe coveralls known as “bunny-suits” were designed to protect microchips et al. - rather than workers - from contaminants.)
Yet this recirculation of air also increases the rate at which workers breathe chemicals and the number of workers exposed, explained Joseph LaDou, former director of the International Center for Occupational Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. When the air circulates rapidly in the clean room’s enclosed environment, the effectiveness of any hoods or filters are diminished, he explained. “In an 8-hour shift - or the longer shifts worked in Asia - clean room workers are breathing a cauldron of chemicals,” said LaDou. And when it comes to any protective standards, “there is no regulation for exposure to groups of chemicals or circulating exposure,” he noted.
“The cases at Samsung fit a pattern of what we saw in the IBM study,” said Richard Clapp, Boston University professor emeritus of environmental health and epidemiologist who conducted an epidemiological study of cancer and death rates among IBM workers between 1969 and 2001 that found elevated rates of blood, brain, lymphatic, and other cancers among workers likely exposed to manufacturing chemicals.
Said Amanda Hawes, an attorney based in San Jose, Calif., who specializes in occupational health issues related to chemical exposure: “What’s being seen at Samsung is comparable to other situations where there’s been an excess of lymphoma and leukemia incidence among workers (particularly women) working in mixed chemical environments with solvents.” Hawes has represented former IBM workers in lawsuits involving chemical exposure. (IBM has settled a number of such cases out of court.)
According to Samsung, studies conducted in 2007 and 2008 by the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency and a private consulting team found no correlation between the workplace environment and employee illnesses. “Nevertheless,” Reuben Staines, of Samsung’s corporate communications team in Seoul, wrote in an email, “Samsung Electronics has commissioned an additional independent third-party review, which began in July of last year.” This review is being conducted by a team led by Environ International, a private consultancy, and its work will be reviewed by a panel that includes experts from Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Michigan, and other institutions. “The inspection team has been and continues to be given complete access to Samsung’s semiconductor manufacturing facilities,” wrote Staines. Samsung says it will “carefully review” the Environ findings and “make any necessary changes to our environmental safety and health infrastructure and procedures.”
In December 2010, four Korean NGOs that have been working with SHARPS and labor groups issued a critique of a report released last fall into conditions at Samsung’s semiconductor fabrication plants. The report, known as the “Advisory Report” and overseen by Seoul National University, “found no instances of regulatory breaches in our manufacturing operations,” says Samsung. However, the NGOs say the report failed to account for all the chemicals used in the various production lines (some apparently use as many as 99 different chemicals) or to fully account for how chemicals have been managed - lapses they contend include safety and monitoring equipment failures and leaks. The NGO critique also notes that both the Advisory Report and a 2006 assessment by the Korean Institute for Environment Hygiene and Safety cautioned about the potential for exposure to highly concentrated toxic chemicals despite proper operating procedures.
Samsung has taken issue with SHARPS’ assessment of workers’ health and with the critique, calling the NGO account “inaccurate and misleading” and one that “cannot be viewed as a credible epidemiological study.” One criticism is that the NGO document includes illnesses outside of the semiconductor business. Rather than the 120 cases counted by SHARPS, Samsung says it “is aware of 22 cases of leukemia or lymphoma among all workers employed in its semiconductor business from 1998 through April 2010. Among these cases, we are aware of 10 former employees who have passed away as a result of their illnesses.”
“Samsung maintains a world-class environment, health, and safety infrastructure,” wrote Staines, “and we continually make improvements and enhancements to ensure that it is state-of-the-art. We make these ongoing investments in the normal course of business, which includes careful review and implementation of recommendations that are presented to us through credible research.”
Samsung’s findings thus far mirror what the semiconductor industry has found in its investigations undertaken in response to revelations of comparable illnesses in similar circumstances in the U.K. and the U.S. While academic epidemiologists have found higher than expected incidences of cancers among semiconductor workers based on records from National Semiconductor in Scotland and from IBM in the U.S., the companies involved and the Semiconductor Industry Association have maintained that these studies are scientifically flawed and that there is no proof of a connection between chemical exposures and these illnesses. In 2008, the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) launched a study of cancer incidence among 28,000 former New York State IBM electronics plant workers, but it does not yet have any preliminary results.
In South Korea, two lawsuits brought on behalf of sickened Samsung workers against the Korea Workers Compensation and Welfare Service are now pending. The workers are suing the government agency for denying their compensation claims against Samsung. (In Korea, the government collects workers compensation funds from employers, adjudicates, and pays out claims.) One suit has been brought on behalf of six workers, five suffering from leukemia and one from lymphoma; the other, begun in 2011, is on behalf of four workers suffering from different diseases that include brain cancer. “It is important to note that Samsung is an interested party but not a defendant in this lawsuit,” wrote Staines.
Staines also noted that Samsung “has strengthened its support programs for employees who have developed serious illnesses” and that “the company is committed to providing support for hospital expenses and living expenses.” The Environ report commissioned by Samsung is due this summer.
In a May 31 email, Kong said that she had just met with the family of another leukemia victim who had worked in a semiconductor factory and was diagnosed at age 37, having worked in electronics plants for 14 years. “He had told his wife to go and meet me when he cannot overcome the cancer,” Kong wrote, “So his wife called me and we met.”
These illnesses - the blood cancers, lymphomas and nervous system and other blood diseases - are all symptomatic of solvent exposure, according to Hawes. These cases are “a red flag,” says Clapp. “If you want to find a cause for these illnesses, this is where you’d go to look.”
Reprinted with permission from Yale Environment 360