Does exposure to the chemicals used and created in wafer fabrication in the semiconductor industry cause increased risk of cancer for workers? The answer is no…and maybe…and who knows?
A Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) created to address the health and safety of fabrication facility workers in the U.S. chip industry says that more scientific study must be conducted before the determination can be made conclusively that there is no increased risk of cancer for workers in wafer fabrication.
"The health and safety of our workers has always been a priority of the semiconductor industry," said George Scalise, president of the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA). The association says it will implement the key recommendations made by the. "We are moving to implement the recommendations of the Scientific Advisory Committee."
The SAC is an independent panel of experts created to evaluate the potential for increased cancer risks among fabrication facility workers within the U.S. semiconductor manufacturing industry. It was chaired by Dr. David Wegman, chairman of the Department of Work Environment at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, College of Engineering, and was comprised of eight experts in the fields of medicine, epidemiology and toxicology, including two representatives from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
The SAC noted there was "an absence of studies that directly address risk of cancer in wafer fabrication settings," so the committee reviewed the processes and chemicals used in fabrication facilities. "From among more than 200 agents identified, we focused our attention on 26 determined to be definite, probable or possible carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer," reported the committee.
The group reached two seemingly opposing conclusions:
- There is no affirmative evidence at the present time to support the contention that workplace exposures to chemicals or other hazards in wafer fabrication, now or historically, measurably increase the risk for cancer in general, or for any particular form or type of cancer.
- There is insufficient evidence at the present time to conclude that exposures to chemicals and other hazards in wafer fabrication have not or could not result in measurably increased risk of one or more cancer types.
According to the SAC, some workers may have undocumented exposures to "agents of concern" at higher levels. The group also said that because of the number of agents, agent combinations and possible chemical by-products created during wafer fabrication, a standard agent-by-agent risk assessment could not adequately answer the question of cancer risks in wafer fabrication.
The SAC recommended that SIA undertake a "rigorous" epidemiologic study to evaluate the cancer risk to workers in the wafer fabrication areas. In addition, the SAC recommended that the SIA "develop and support" an ongoing health surveillance program at all company locations.
In response to the report, SIA said it would:
- Conduct a preliminary review to determine if it is possible to conduct and go forward with a meaningful retrospective epidemiological study.
- Develop common job descriptions and language among the U.S. semiconductor industry for collecting and maintaining relevant data and assess how such data could be maintained and used for health surveillance.
- Expand chemical stewardship initiatives that go beyond current measures in the areas of new materials screening; toxicology testing and disclosure from chemical suppliers; and equipment and process design specifications.
"Additional chemical stewardship initiatives were not within the scope of the SAC''s charter or recommendations," Scalise noted, "but SIA member companies believe action in this area will strengthen further ongoing efforts to ensure a safe workplace for our employees."
The SIA represents U.S.-based semiconductor manufacturers.
by Sandy Smith ([email protected])