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Chipmakers to fund cancer study

The semiconductor industry has enough data for research into dangers of manufacturing plants, experts say.

A chipmaking trade group said on Thursday that it would sponsor a far-reaching study on cancer risks in semiconductor manufacturing facilities, after years of calls for such an effort by industry critics.

The Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) said a panel of experts at Johns Hopkins University had determined that the sector has enough data on past manufacturing practices and employee demographics to make such a study scientifically meaningful. The survey would be a retrospective look at cancer rates among semiconductor manufacturing plant employees, comparing those rates with those of other industries.

"This industry has always looked for ways to improve the manufacturing processes that lower environmental impacts and improve the health and safety conditions for our employees," SIA President George Scalise said in a statement. "The industry is encouraged with the scientific process that it has pursued in investigating this important issue, and is committed to a study that will use good science to provide sound insight."

Critics have charged for years that the chipmaking industry has not done enough to protect workers from the effects of the dangerous chemicals used in computer manufacturing processes. Groups representing workers have said the industry has stalled efforts to create good data on cancer and other risks in the plants.

"It's kind of a day late and a dollar short," said Ted Smith, the executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a group that has long been critical of the industry. "I wish they had done this 10 years ago."

Smith did say the study could be a good sign but that its credibility would depend on who actually performed the research and on whether there would be a third-party oversight panel to certify the findings.

There are only a few previous small-scale studies on the issue, with mixed results. An SIA-funded study in the mid-1990s found high rates of miscarriages among women working in the plants and recommended phasing out some chemicals. A U.K. study published in 2001 found high rates of several cancers in both male and female plant workers.

In 1999, the SIA commissioned a panel on the issue, which recommended further study. The group then commissioned the Johns Hopkins researchers to determine whether enough data existed on past practices to perform a full epidemiological survey on the issue.

That group worked for another two years, while critics accused the industry of foot dragging. Thursday's news marked the first time that the university researchers spoke on the issue. They had been provided with "full cooperation" in the study of SIA member company records and found that sufficient data existed for a full study, they said.

The issue has been brought back to the headlines in recent months by a twin set of court cases on the issue.

More than 200 former workers have sued IBM, alleging that working at the company's manufacturing plants had led to an assortment of cancers and other debilitating medical conditions. The first of these cases to go to trial was litigated in a federal court in San Jose, Calif., beginning late last year.