She was just 21 years old, when she died in the backseat of her fathers taxi. Yumi Whang and her parents were on the way to the hospital for one of her treatments. For two years, Yumi had suffered from severe cancer, myeloid leukemia, a disease only 3 in 100.000 Koreans get, according to Journal of Korean Medical Science. And yet, the past year numbers of leukemia cases have been dramatically rising in South Korea.
As of March 2014, more than 300 Korean workers in the electronics industry have been diagnosed, not only with various forms of leukemia but also several cases of multiple sclerosis and aplastic anemia. All of them have been employed in the electronics industry in South Korea. The vast majority of them were employed at Samsung Electronics.
More than 100 known cases of cancer victims, who had previously worked at Samsung Electronics, have died according to the group, ‘Supporters for the Health And Rights of People in the Semiconductor industry’ (SHARPS).
A dream job
Getting a job at Samsung Electronics is a dream for most young Koreans who live in one of the provinces of Seoul, where opportunity rarely comes by. This was the case for the 19-year old Yumi Hwang who lived with her parents in the village Sokcho and had just graduated from high school in October 2003, when she got a job at Samsung’s Giheung plant.
”She was so happy,” Mr Hwang remembers, smiling.
It was Yumis first job, and she was looking forward to live with the other, mostly female, workers in the dormitories at the Giheung plant.
Yumi worked as an operator in line 3, where she was wet-cleaning manually. All the workers had to wear a bunny suit. Garments that would protect the electronics from dust, but allegedly not the workers from chemicals.
Between 500 and 1000 different chemicals are used in the semiconductor industry, including many carcinogens like solvents (trichloroethylene, benzene, dichloroethane), arsenic, and heavy metals like cadmium and lead. Workers are also exposed to electromagnetic fields as well as ionizing and non-ionizing radiation.
At first, Yumi’s father thought that her frequent nausea, dizziness and bruises was nothing serious, but a health check with her doctor quickly determined her diagnosis in June 2005. Yumi had leukemia and began immediate treatment.
The morning of March 6 2007, Mr and Mrs Hwang began the three hours well-known drive to the hospital, where Yumi was receiving treatment. Yumi was lying in the back seat, they were less than an hour away from the hospital, and they had just stopped for some rice. Yumi was sweating and then freezing and when Yumi’s mother turned to comfort her daughter, she was no longer breathing.
“Her mother gently closed Yumi’s eyes, and as I was standing there it occurred to me that we were in the middle of the road,” Mr Hwang says quietly.
“I put a blanket over my daughter, and we drove back home”.
Victims of tablet production
Ten years earlier, the 17th of January 1995, another young girl, the 19-year-old senior high school student Suk-young Lee, started working at the exact same line 3 at the Samsung Giheung Factory. In 2003, she and Yumi Hwang worked together as operators, but after a few years, she started getting rashes and respiratory diseases.
In June 2006, Suk-young Lee discovered she was pregnant, but suffered a miscarriage and not more than one month later, she was diagnosed with the same kind of leukemia as Yumi. In August 2003 she died from aggressive leukemia, 31 years old.
39-year-old Seong-ok Lee has worked in line 3 with Suk-young Lee for ten years:
“I was only introduced to production processes, never any safety measures,” she says.
Seong-ok Lee was mainly assigned to work in photolithography processes. She remembers the first days of work at Samsung.
“No one ever told me about the chemicals I was working with or the dangers related to my work. The older workers talked about risks but mainly to protect the products we were working with. They told me, that if I had chemicals in my eyes, I should rinse quickly. Nothing else”.
High levels of radiation
Seong-ok Lee was only 18 when she started working at the Samsung Giheung plant at the same time as Suk-young Lee in 1995. Six days a week, eight hours a day or night, since they were three teams working in shifts, and then two days off. The pay was good for an 18-year-old high school student, 1,2 million won (1561 dollars) a month.
But not enough to risk the life of her unborn child, so when Seong-ok Lee in 2005 realized she was pregnant, she resigned from Samsung Electronics.
“It was common knowledge that you shouldn’t keep working in the semiconductor industry if you were pregnant because there is a high risk of a miscarriage or that the baby will be born with deformities,” Seong-ok Lee says today.
The safety precautions for her unborn child didn’t apply to herself, and in 2011 she found out that she had thyroid cancer.
“My feelings overwhelmed me, I couldn’t believe, that I had cancer in my body”, she remembers.
“When I discovered what kind of chemicals I was working with and the level of radiation my body was exposed to during my work, I was certain. I asked the doctor if my diagnosis, in his opinion, could be related to my previous work at Samsung, and he said that it was likely, but hard to find documentation”.
Is cancer related to IT industry?
Piles of different research have tried to examine whether the semiconductor industry causes cancer amongst its workers. Some research claims that this is not the case. A study funded by Samsung and conducted by Environ, an international environmental and human health consultancy, could not find correlation between workplace environment and employee illness at Samsung’s semiconductor operations.
Others, like a sample analysis by the Educational-Industrial Institute of Seoul National University, however, show a somewhat contradictory result. The study concluded, that even though the study had limitations ‘including healthy worker effects, information bias and insufficient power, all of which are associated with underestimation’, there was an ‘excess risks for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL), leukemia, brain tumor and breast cancer’. The study also pointed to ‘reproductive risks from fabrication jobs, including spontaneous abortion, congenital malformation and reduced fertility’.
Outsourcing of a sick industry
Cancer clusters in the electronics industry is a well-known phenomenon from USA and Europe in the 90ies, that moved to Asia with the outsourcing of a lot of manufacturing industries during 2000.
In 1980, the California Department of Industrial Relation reported that semiconductor workers were exposed to carcinogens and toxic agents. At IBM, 12 workers contracted cancer, but when they filed a lawsuit to get their diagnosis recognized as work related, none of the plaintiffs were upheld in court.
In Scotland, The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) published a study that pointed to an increased risk of National Semiconductor UK workers contracting certain kinds of cancer. According to the study, female workers were at two to three times higher risk of developing lung cancer, four to five times higher for stomach cancer and five times higher for breast cancer. Male workers had a four times greater risk of brain cancer compared to the rest of the population.
Global supply chains and expansion of the electronics industry have spread cases of cancer to most of Asia. In the 1990s four workers died and 200 workers were diagnosed with lead poisoning in one Thailand HDD company. Since, similar incidents have been detected in India, Taiwan, Malaysia and China.
In China, hundreds of workers at Nokia and Apple factories are still exposed to toxic chemicals, despite multiple statements from Apple saying that the toxic chemicals have been removed from their production, claims the non-profit organization Green America.
Only three cases recognized
Samsung Electronics, despite South Korea founded and based, is a global supplier of microchips to the majority of the electronics industry, including market leader Apple.
In South Korea, the government has investigated cancer risk among semiconductor workers in response to the rising concern over cancer cluster in Samsung Electronics.
The 23rd of June 2011, Yumi Hwang and the relatives of Suk-young Lee won their first administrative litigation case against Samsung Electronics on occupational disease. In its ruling, the court said:
“Even if the cause of the acute myeloid leukemia that occurred in the late Ms. Hwang has not been clearly ascertained in medical terms, it is possible to deduce that the leukemia arose or was expedited through her continued exposure to various hazardous chemicals while working on the No. 3 line at the Giheung workplace semiconductor plant, and also through her exposure to ionizing radiation, albeit in very doses.”
Sorry – but not responsible
In 2011, Samsung Electronics invested §88 million in improvement in their semiconductor infrastructure, and according to the company, Samsung ‘manages chemical exposure levels to ensure they remain significantly below any level that could cause harm to humans and the environment’.
May 14th 2014, seven years after Yumi Hwangs death, Samsung Electronics apologized to the victims.
“Several workers at our production facilities suffered from leukemia and other incurable diseases, which also led to some deaths”, Kwon Oh-hyun, the CEO of the Samsung Electronics, said in a statement.
“We should have settled the issue earlier, and we are deeply heartbroken that we failed to do so and express our deep apology. We will make due compensation to the victims and the families”. The company has begun negotiations with the victims and their families through SHARPS about the size of compensation, but they maintain that cancer cases are not work related.
November 7th, 2014, a Seoul court ordered the government to compensate a woman who died of a brain tumor after working at a Samsung Electronics Co. plant, recognizing her as an industrial disaster victim as her death was linked to Samsung Electronics’ work environment. Lee Yun-jeong, 32, died in 2012. She was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in 2010 after having worked at a Samsung semiconductor plant in central South Korea from 1997 to 2003. The Korean Workers’ Compensation & Welfare Service (KCOMWEL) refused to cover her medical treatment after a probe by the Occupational Safety and Health Research Institute (OSHARI) showed no link between her illness and the work carried out at the factory in Asan, some 80 kilometers south of Seoul. Lee Yun-jeong filed a lawsuit to reverse the decision in 2011 but died a year later. Her widowed husband took over as plaintiff along with her former colleague, Yu Myeng-hwa, who was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, an irreversible blood disorder, in 2001. Yu, 32, had worked at the same factory from 2000 to 2003. The Seoul Administrative Court ruling said the plant’s environment appeared to have led to Lee Yun-jeong’s death, and the government should have covered the costs of her treatment.