Microchip staff exposed to toxic chemicals

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The Independent Online
FORMER WORKERS from Scottish semiconductor plants say toxic chemicals used on their production lines have caused miscarriages and cancers.

Women employed in the 1970s and 1980s at plants all over Scotland's "Silicon Glen", in the Strathclyde region, believe that as a result of exposure to chemicals called glycol ethers - used in the industry until 1992 to help spread other chemicals evenly on chips - they have developed breast, uterine and cervical cancers, and suffered an unusual number of miscarriages.

Among the companies blamed is National Semiconductor, based in Greenock, which yesterday announced it will cut 600 of its 1,040 jobs in the next 18 months, blaming global overcapacity in chip markets.

The women, some of whom once worked at Greenock, say that the image of the industry -- where workers often wear "spacesuits" to prevent their skin, hair or breath contaminating the supersensitive products - belies the high volumes of hazardous materials they were routinely exposed to.

A 1992 study in the US funded by the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) found miscarriage rates were 40 per cent higher among workers exposed to the glycol ethers. After that, the industry phased out their use.

However, some epidemiologists suspect that miscarriages can be an early signal of exposure to cancer-causing chemicals. Cancer rates among women in Inverclyde are significantly higher than the national average.

Now, the support groups are pressing for the industry to admit its role in their illnesses.

"The facade that the electronics industry is a `clean industry' is being stripped away. Not too long ago, the increase in miscarriages among women working in the electronics industry became widely known," said Grace Morrison of Phase Two, a support group for semiconductor workers in Scotland.

"Many of my friends who worked at National Semiconductor now have cancer. How high does the body count have to rise before the semiconductor industry will take responsible action to protect the workers?"

A team from Glasgow University is to study the claims, though it could take months for clear results to emerge.

In March, the Health and Safety Executive published a study which found that for women now employed in the UK semiconductor industry there is "no increased risk" of miscarriage compared to a sample randomly drawn from the British population.

But the study has been criticised for its lack of size, and because it only looked at women who worked in the industry from 1993 onwards.

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