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California cancer victims sue IBM

Cancer victims and their families sue IBM, alleging that its plant exposed employees to fatal chemical levels for three decades.

Nine cancer victims and their families have sued IBM, accusing Big Blue of using them as "guinea pigs" in their disk drive manufacturing facilities in San Jose, California.

The victims separately are seeking compensation for damages as a result of exposure to hazardous toxic chemicals and substances used in the facility, according to the complaint filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court. The plaintiffs claim that IBM "willfully and recklessly" failed to warn employees of the substances' potential health hazards, and neglected to follow proper safety procedures.

According to the complaint, employees working in the facility's "clean rooms" since 1964 had prolonged contact with toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing process of disk drive assemblies, coatings, and microcircuitry. The clean rooms filter only particles that could damage electronic devices being assembled, and the complaint claimed that IBM's clean rooms were not equipped with adequate ventilation systems to prevent recirculation of harmful fumes.

The complaint also claimed that protective gear worn by the employees were designed to protect products from being damaged, rather than to protect against worker exposure to the toxins.

"Clean doesn't necessarily mean safe," said attorney Amanda Hawes, who brought the suit on behalf of the families of five former IBM employees who have died of cancer and four more who are now battling the disease.

"The materials used in this industry may be very advanced tech, but it doesn't mean that they are free of risk to the workers," Hawes said. "These are people who always thought they were being totally protected."

Tara Sexton, a spokesperson from IBM, has denied any wrongdoing on the company's part, and said that, "IBM has a long-standing commitment to a safe working environment in compliance with all health and safety regulations and laws."

Sexton also noted that employees are trained in chemical safety, and are warned to take all necessary precautions in minimizing their handling of hazardous materials, before declining to comment on the specifics of the case.

A separate suit was filed in New York in 1996 aimed at the chemical manufacturers, alleging that a wide variety of cancers could be traced to chemicals used in the semiconductor industry.

"These are all relatively young people," Hawes said, noting that the suit sought punitive damages from both IBM and the chemical makers. "It is disturbing that some of these materials are closely guarded trade secrets, which is more important than getting to the bottom of their potential for human harm."

Reuters contributed to this report.