By David A. Sonnenfeld

It is rare that public health professionals, labor advocates, community activists, and university scholars come together at one place and time to discuss the past, present, and future of health and environmental challenges of a major industrial sector. It is even rarer that we manage to sustain a years-long collaboration in analyzing, documenting, and discussing such challenges, resulting in the publication of a peer-reviewed handbook for workers and advocates focused on that sector. Yet that is exactly what has been accomplished with last year’s publication of Challenging the Chip: Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).

As one of the book’s editors, I had the pleasure of working with more than thirty authors from around the world (China, England, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Scotland, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, USA) over the course of four years as they recorded insights from years of experiences with various parts of the electronics production-consumption-disposal lifecycle. The labor process – and its accompanying environmental and health risks and impacts – for both assemblers and disassemblers is central to the work. Inequality in the distribution of harm to women, immigrants, and those in or from the ‘Global South’ also is a core theme examined in the book. A few snips:

Sheela can feel her head reeling. She works in the soldering section of a printed circuit board factory in Mumbai. She has been working for more than eight hours on a very hot and humid day… The noxious fumes are giving her stomach cramps … Sheila thinks of her family and tries to concentrate on the work, but it is becoming increasingly difficult. Suddenly, a dark cloud appears in front of her eyes, and she collapses on the factory floor. (from S. Pandita, “Electronics Workers in India,” in Challenging the Chip, p. 83)

“Sheela” (not her real name) is one of many workers from global electronics that readers meet in the book. “John, a male semiconductor worker (now deceased)” from Scotland is another:

I have been involved in the engineering side for many years and the place is a total shambles. In the mid-seventies it was blatant murder. Those lassies did not have a clue what was going on, they had no chance. We used to unplug the chemical alarms if they were working against a production deadline, and there were women vomiting all over the place… (from J. McCourt, “Worker Health at National Semiconductor, Greenock,” in Challenging the Chip, p. 142)

“Mr. Liu” from Taiwan recounts the loss of his child and wife:

My wife started to work in the RCA factory soon after she graduated from high school. During the 11 years of her RCA career, she was assigned to material management. Every day she would have to work in a closed environment, handling all sorts of disposal buckets previously used for containing … organic solvents…. When my third daughter … was about four-months old, her belly started ballooning to the size of a basketball. Later diagnosis by doctors confirmed she had hepatoblastoma…. my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and it took years to develop … Nobody in my family or her family has ever had cancer; even her 90-year-old grandmother is still very healthy. (from Y. Ku, “Human Lives Valued Less than Dirt,” in Challenging the Chip, pp. 181-182)  

These are just a few of the heart-wrenching accounts documented in the text.

Joseph LaDou, M.D., Director of the International Center for Occupational Medicine, University of California, San Francisco, and Editor, International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, contributes an up-to-date review of research findings on occupational health impacts of semiconductor manufacturing. Amanda Hawes, Esq., Partner, Alexander, Hawes and Audet; and founder and former Executive Director of the Santa Clara Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (SCCOSH), describes her experiences as lead lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the landmark workers’ suit “against IBM for chemical poisoning resulting in cancer or other chronic disease.” Prof. Andrew Watterson, Chair in Health Effectiveness, Stirling University, Scotland, reviews evidence on occupational and environmental health in Central and Eastern Europe’s semiconductor sector. And more …

There is much to read, contemplate, and act on in this text, for all of us who enjoy using the latest high-tech tools and toys, and any of us who would take the time to learn from the lives and decades of experiences of workers, advocates, and others around the world who are “challenging the chip”. For further information, including the Table of Contents, Foreword by Jim Hightower, and Introduction, please see the publisher’s website. The book is designed to be useful for a broad readership, including workers, professionals, practitioners, policymakers, students, and others. I hope and trust you will find it of interest.

David A. Sonnenfeld is an associate professor of community and environmental studies at Washington State University. He is co-editor of Challenging the Chip, with Ted Smith, founder and senior strategist, Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, and David Naguib Pellow, associate professor of ethnic studies, University of California, San Diego.