On January 21, the day after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, women around the world marched “for human rights, civil liberties, and social justice for all” – concepts some feared might be endangered under the Trump administration.
Among those marching in San Jose on that blustery January day was veteran occupational health lawyer Amanda Hawes. Hawes carried a sign that read “Super Callow Fragile Ego Trump You Are Atrocious” in a play on words from the classic Mary Poppins tune. An image of her and her sign went viral.
The 73-year-old Harvard Law School graduate has walked the hi-tech corridors of Silicon Valley for the past 43 years. During that time, she has taken on tech giants, representing electronics workers – many of them immigrants or the children of immigrants from Mexico and Central America, the Philippines, China, Iran, the Azores, Vietnam and Cambodia – who, during the course of their work, were exposed to toxic chemicals linked to cancer, autoimmune disorders and other diseases.
“Over the past 40 years, I have represented hundreds of electronics workers in workers’ compensation claims, scores of children of electronics workers in civil litigation seeking compensation for developmental harm, and over a hundred families impacted by water contamination from the so-called ‘clean industry’,” said Hawes, referring to the term sometimes used for the electronics industry.
In 1977, she cofounded the Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety and Health (SCCOSH).
“From 1978 to 1980, with a grant from the US Labor Department, SCCOSH staff did research on chemical and radiation hazards in electronics manufacturing, made the information available in English, Spanish and Tagalog, including fact sheets and booklets, and ran a hotline for electronics workers to call with questions or information they wanted to share,” she explained.
“SCCOSH provided the scientific data to support a California-wide worker campaign for a ban on the degreasing solvent TCE (trichloroethylene) in the workplace and to press for better controls on 1,1,1-trichloroethane (TCA) the so-called ‘safe substitute’ for TCE.”
In the midst of a technology revolution that shows no sign of slowing down, the cases pursued by Hawes suggest humanity may be paying a heavy price for its innovation.
“There’s very little manufacturing occurring in Silicon Valley, at this time,” Hawes explained. “Some of the claims that I’ve been pursuing more recently come from work experiences they’ve (the workers) had many, many years ago …
“A lot of the work I’ve been doing has been on behalf of electronics workers whose children were exposed in utero, so they (the children) are often chronologically adults but mentally that’s never going to be. They’re never going to have an independent life, have no capacity to support themselves basically, or have the things everybody hopes for their children.”
Ted Smith, the founder of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), is Hawes’s partner and co-author of, Challenging the Chip: Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry. He described the greatest health, environmental and labour concerns associated with the tech industry as the disregard shown for the places where e-waste is dumped and burned, the migration of hi-tech facilities to impoverished countries where worker protection is weak, and the ongoing health repercussions for manufacturing workers dealing with toxic chemicals.
E-waste refers to any electronic items, or parts of those items, that need to be disposed of, including mobile devices, tablets, computers, televisions and others.
Silicon Valley and other tech hubs continue to send the majority of their e-waste to developing countries, in attempts to keep their factories “clean”. But when e-waste is incorrectly disposed of, poisonous hydrocarbons are released into the air and heavy metals leak into the soil. These pollutants can travel long distances, affecting people thousands of miles away. The chemicals not only seep into the soil where they were disposed, but become intrinsically linked to the global food chain, as animals consume food, inhale air and drink water that has come into contact with toxic materials.
Hawes, Smith, the SVTC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and numerous other organisations, both nonprofit and governmental, have fought for workers’ occupational health rights for decades. Why, then, does change still seem so evasive? Planned obsolescence and industry ignorance are high on the list, said Hawes and Smith.
Kyle Wiens, cofounder of wiki-based tech repair and salvage site iFixit, gave an example of this intentional obsolescence: “Every cellphone I’ve ever had, you just pop the back off … every year or two, you have to replace the battery. Apple has decided with the iPod and the iPhone that they don’t like that model. So what they are doing is building the batteries into the phone and using proprietary screws on there in [an] attempt to limit the lifespan of the phone to about 18 months – which is around the time when they have a new phone and they want you to buy a new one anyway.”
Al Jazeera put the claim of “planned obsolescence” to Apple but has received no response from their representatives.
This rapid change doesn’t only mean more e-waste but also creates a rushed innovation environment in which many chemicals are not trialled and tested adequately for health and safety requirements, said the SVTC.
“Some of the chemicals that are used to clean computer electronic products, to degrease them, they’ve got a prior history as anaesthetic gasses,” explained Hawes. “That doesn’t mean they’re safe. It means pay attention to what happened to the workers around the anaesthetic gasses [as an example]. They suffered reproductive harm that was very well documented in the 1960s and the 1970s and then this industry went ahead and used vast quantities of the same chemicals and never did a thing.”
The first sign of adverse reproductive effects from electronics industry chemicals emerged in Silicon Valley in 1982. The State Health Department had identified a cluster of cardiac birth defects in a neighbourhood served by a well that had been contaminated by waste solvents, including the aforementioned TCA, that had been unsafely stored on site at Fairchild and IBM. The solvents had seeped through porous soil and into the well. A high rate of spontaneous abortion among women working in the industry was also discovered.
Hawes said much has been done since then to try and combat these issues. “I was one of a team of lawyers who represented the many families whose water was contaminated by these solvents in a large case that was resolved in 1986,” she said.
“The aftermath of this water contamination problem has involved massive clean-up efforts, not just at this site but at other sites across the valley – a very costly way of proving the obvious benefits of preventing harm in the first place.
In the mid-1980s, SCCOSH and the SVTC mounted a campaign to get glycol ethers – a family of solvents identified as reproductive and developmental hazards – phased out of manufacturing.
Hawes says the industry resisted, but the campaigns persisted.
“Over the years, and despite efforts to keep regulators at bay, there has been progress in identifying chemicals that pose a reproductive or developmental threat and requiring effective disclosures of this aspect of their toxicity, eg California’s Proposition 65 adopted in the mid-1980s, the California Right-to-Know laws of 1981 and the Federal Hazard Communication Right-to-Know law of 1986.
Hawes is currently involved in a movement to encourage the industry to commit to only using materials that are demonstrably free of risks to the health of workers and their prospective offspring.
“This is called the Life Cycle Approach to chemicals management, and in my opinion, should be a guiding principle in all chemical-using industries,” she explained.
Hawes believes a complex regulation system and varying standards for different chemicals, and combinations of chemicals, makes dealing with cases after the damage has been done more difficult.
“… Most people, if they’re exposed to hazards at work, it’s not a single chemical, it’s usually an entire group, maybe multiple solvents and heavy metals. That’s a terrible mixture. We do have some standards, but they are chemical by chemical. If you’re working with a group of materials, those standards really aren’t going to protect you, even if they might be adequate for one situation … there’s a huge discrepancy,” she said.
The SVTC believes a lack of interest in education and prevention is at the heart of the tech industry’s problems with toxic e-waste and occupational health and safety.
But the cost of prevention, says Hawes, is significantly lower than the cost to the environment and to the tech firms themselves of not preventing the use of dangerous chemicals.
“Where’s the motivation to become fully informed and to provide a safe work environment?” asked Hawes.
“There was [in the 1970s and 1980s] plenty of information, and serious efforts to make it available to employers, so that they could [use their] influence [to enforce standards regarding] what their responsibility is to provide safe workplaces.”
“How that stopped short of providing workplaces that were free of risk, or reproductive harm, long-term illness … In some situations, it was a pretty strong resistance [from the tech firms] to the government regulating the industry, because here we are, we’re technologically cutting edge. What could be better than that?
“We have a very incomplete health and safety enforcement structure. As much as we want it to be effective, it’s stretched very thin,” Hawes said.
Yvette Flores and her son, Mark, are evidence of this. Speaking to the makers of, Death by Design, a documentary that investigates the deadly health and environmental costs of the tech industry, Flores described her experience working with laser giant Spectra-Physics, in Mountain View, California, in the 1970s. She recalled working daily with an unknown substance she nicknamed “green gunk”.
Hawes, who represented Flores, said the substance was, in fact, a poisonous chemical called “frit”.
“Yvette didn’t know the material she was using was probably in the vicinity of 50 percent lead oxide. She didn’t know she was exposed to lead. They didn’t tell her that,” Hawes explained.
“In the late 1970s, there were no ‘right to know’ laws that she could have invoked to learn about the reproductive and developmental hazards of her job before it was too late.”
The Flores case was resolved just before going to trial. Flores’s son Mark, who is now 37, was born with severe developmental disabilities. Flores said he is unable to cross the street or use the toilet independently.
“If I knew what I know now, I would’ve ran out of Spectra-Physics at the time. It was unnecessary. It breaks my heart that I could’ve avoided this,” she reflected.
We don't have fair standards for workers in the first place. Dismantling environmental standards is a predictor of what they would do. They're also, simply put, not enforcing fundamental health and safety standards....I don't think that's ever going to change.
On March 13, the White House released its first preliminary budget under Trump. The most notable changes were deep cuts to US science and environmental agency budgets, including that of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The 31 percent cut followed closely on the heels of former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt’s assignment to the role of EPA’s new leader.
Pruitt’s track record as attorney general included attempts to repeatedly sue the EPA for items of environmental protection put forward by the Obama administration.
Hawes said she fears “dismantling environmental standards is a predictor of what” the Trump administration may do, but that the issue did not start and will not end with the Trump administration.
“We don’t have fair standards for workers in the first place,” she said.
Hawes explained what motivates her: “I would imagine that I am viewed [by tech and electronics companies] as a ‘thorn in their side’ or something like that. Around 1980, the lawyer for one semiconductor firm against whom I brought workers’ compensation claims told me the company president ‘couldn’t understand how one Harvard graduate could be doing this to another’.”
“If we can help each other than you’re accomplishing what everybody should be entitled to … Safe jobs, healthy families, that should be universal.”
And she had a message for the tech industry: “You don’t want to hear it, but the answer is you grew it, you ignored it and now time’s up.”