High-Tech and Toxic

By Byster, Leslie; Smith, Ted | Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview
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High-Tech and Toxic

Byster, Leslie, Smith, Ted, Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

From Silicon Valley to Malaysia, the high-tech electronics industry is taking its toll on human and environmental health.

As we approach the 21st Century, information and communications technology is clearly becoming the world's most dominant corporate sector - economically, politically, and socially. The electronics industry, which fuels this powerful engine, is the world's largest and fastest-growing manufacturing sector. Douglas Andrey, director of information systems and finance of the Semiconductor Industry Association recently said that "because of its growth and size, the chip industry is the pivotal driver of the world economy."(1)

The highly competitive and innovative electronics industry spans the production of semiconductors, disk drives, circuit boards, consumer electronics, communications devices, and video display equipment. In addition, high-tech electronics manufacturing has led to explosive growth in industries that manufacture the materials and chemicals that supply the assembly plants as well as an increase in the number of companies that treat and dispose of waste generated in the production processes.

Despite economic turmoil in Asia and temporary and cyclical production slow-downs, high-tech manufacturers are projecting a rebound leading to continued demand for semiconductor wafers from which computer chips are cut.

Furthermore, more than 100 semiconductor fabrication facilities, known in the trade as fabs - each costing between $1.5 billion and $4 billion - are in various stages of planning and construction throughout the world, with the Pacific Rim experiencing the greatest growth.(2)

Demand is being driven by the rapid expansion of the Internet as well as by industry marketing campaigns that promote the latest - often unnecessary - fads and baubles. The fast-paced competition of the industry makes many high-tech products obsolete within months. Clearly, Intel which dominates the market for microprocessors - understands that in order to maintain its exponential growth rate, it must continue to create demand for its product. So it came as no surprise when Intel announced in 1997 that it would spend more than $100 million to promote its Pentium II chip and use half the advertising dollars for international campaigns. Nor was anyone surprised by a September 1997 Reuters news story reporting that "even though almost every personal computer maker has to buy computer chips from Intel to make their machines work, Intel and its partners have spent more than $2 billion in the past four years promoting the Pentium brand."(3)

Intel now controls more than 80 percent of the microprocessor market, is the world leader in microprocessor production, and creates a new product line every six to 18 months to maintain its near monopoly position.

Roots in Silicon Valley

Until a few years ago, semiconductor manufacturing was concentrated in the United States - primarily in Silicon Valley and in the high-tech corridor along Route 128 near Boston - and in a few areas in western Europe and Japan. Today, labs in the United States are located mainly in California, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Arizona, Virginia, Oregon, Idaho, and Texas.(4)

With more than 900 fabs worldwide, high-tech manufacturing has expanded to countries throughout Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In each new country, the industry brings to communities and workers its toxic hazards as well as its thirst for natural and economic resources. And within the borders of the United States, the industry has also sought out low-income communities and communities of color, especially in the Southwest.

While most high-tech and research-intensive facilities are located in developed, industrialized countries - especially the United States, western Europe, and Japan - the less advanced and the dirtier and most labor-intensive processes are increasingly being shuffled to underdeveloped countries throughout the global South, where wages are lower, environmental protections laws are less stringent, and enforcement capability is lax even when laws exist, creating a whole system of environmental and economic injustice.

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