In the 1970s and 1980s, many of those employees worked in the so-called "clean rooms," where they built microchips and hard drives. These were boom times for IBM. Clean rooms ran around the clock, feeding the demands of the computer revolution.
But, a few years ago, some clean room veterans noticed that colleagues were coming down with cancers -- rare cancers -- at surprisingly early ages. One IBM team had a cancer rate of 80 percent. At about the same time, some children born to IBM families were delivered with terrible birth defects.
IBM declined an interview with 60 Minutes II. But some IBM workers say that the company's clean rooms were hiding a dirty secret. And what shocks them even more is just how much Big Blue knew. Correspondent Scott Pelley reports.
"Nobody would ever think that IBM would ever do this to anybody because they treated us like their family. We were a family," says Keith Barrack, who set his heart on IBM early. He came from a family of IBM employees. His mother and grandparents worked at the plant in East Fishkill, N.Y.
Barrack said he was "ecstatic, honored" when he first got his job.
And that's what Chris Ramm also thought. He went to work for IBM in San Jose, Calif., right out of high school.
"It was the place to go. It was Big Blue, it was full employment, 30 years, you're gonna get a nice pension," says Ramm.
For Armida Mesa, a job at IBM in San Jose was success that was unimaginable for the daughter of migrant laborers: "I was excited. What a great opportunity, you know, to go work for IBM."
They live at opposite ends of the country, but these "IBMers" have a lot in common. They worked in clean rooms in the 70s and 80s, built chips and drives with their own hands, and all developed cancer.
Barrack and Ramm were diagnosed with testicular cancer, and Mesa was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now, they're among 250 current and former IBM employees suing IBM.
Most of these employees worked in the clean rooms, which were clean if you were a chip. The so-called bunny suits that workers wore kept dust and hair off the products. But the workers told 60 Minutes II that the suits didn't do enough to shield them from powerful acids, solvents and coatings, or the mix of fumes that those chemicals produced.
One of the worst, Barrack said, was called KTI 820. There is even a warning on the label of containers of KTI that says, "May cause damage to the testes." But Barrack claims he never saw the warning label "because they weren't on there."
Barrack says the KTI came to the plant in 55-gallon drums, but by the time it reached him, it had been poured into small, brown bottles labeled only with the letters KTI.
Did IBM ever tell him about the various hazards associated with these chemicals he was working with? "Never told us anything," he says.
"The fact is that carcinogens were used at IBM for a long period of time and the workers were never told," says Richard Alexander, one of the lawyers representing the workers.
"IBM did it because it knew that if it told the truth to its workers, at the levels of exposure that these people worked with, that they would lose their workforce," adds Alexander.
We don't know what IBM's toxicologists knew about the dangers of these chemicals. But Mesa says she was never warned about methylene chloride, which the state of California says is "known to cause cancer." All she knew was that it tended to melt her gloves, so she had to use her bare hands: "Nobody came to us. Nobody was wearing the gloves."
Mesa says she was surprised when she developed breast cancer. As a Hispanic woman with two children, she was at lower risk than other women. And although her grandmother had breast cancer, it developed late in her life. Plus, there was no breast cancer with Mesa's mother or her seven sisters.
"Since I didn't drink, I didn't smoke, and I ate healthy, and I exercised. I just can't figure out what else it could be," says Mesa.
Ramm says he didn't link his cancer to IBM until he heard that two of his co-workers had testicular cancer, just as he did.
"So now lights are goin' off. Here are two people that have testicle cancer, besides me, who worked in the same area during the same time frame," says Ramm.
Testicular cancer is very rare, and each year, it accounts for less than 1 percent of all cancers in men.
If the employees were noticing testicular cancer and breast cancer in the clean rooms, there was something truly alarming about what was happening inside IBM's Building 13 in San Jose.
Gary Adams was a chemist there handling many of the chemicals used in the clean rooms. There were 10 people in his work group – so far, eight have developed cancer, and six have died of cancer, including four from brain cancer.
"Brain cancer is probably one percent of all cancers, and four of them," says Alexander. "That's not a red flag. That's a bomb going off."
When Adams saw his colleagues stricken with cancer, he figured IBM would want to act swiftly. So in 1985, he alerted the IBM medical staff in a letter telling them the names of his colleagues, the cancers they had, and the chemicals they worked with.
"I expected alarm bells to go off all over IBM," says Adams. "I was very disappointed."
Adams says IBM told him that cancer was an unfortunate fact of life, and that nothing pointed to exposure at work. He let it drop, until he heard about his friend, Ray Hawkins. Hawkins became the fourth man in the workgroup to die of brain cancer. Adams wrote IBM again, but this time he went to the top. He wrote Louis Gerstner, who was IBM's chairman at the time.
"He had a medical doctor from IBM Medical write me a letter," says Adams. In that letter, an IBM doctor told Adams that "regrettably, cancer is one of the most common causes of death in American adults."
Eighty percent of the people in his work group got cancer, yet Adams was told that it was just a fact of life. "I guess just like heart disease -- and getting old," says Adams, who was one of the two lucky ones in the Building 13 lab who did not develop cancer. But he worries that it may come to him yet.
IBM knew about the cancer cluster in Building 13. But what did the company know about cancer among its employees across the country? It turns out that since 1969, IBM has kept death records for nearly all its employees in the U.S. – 30,000 records in all. It's called the Corporate Mortality File and it has a lot to say about cancer.
No one outside IBM knew about the database until it was discovered as part of the lawsuit filed by the IBM cancer victims. "There's no doubt in my mind that cancer is a significant problem in this workforce that's represented in this database," says Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist at Boston University.
Clapp, an expert at tracking cancer deaths, analyzed IBM's death records on behalf of the employees who are suing the company. He says that the records reveal cancers among IBM workers well above national averages: "For brain cancer, four times higher. For multiple myeloma, even higher than that, six times higher, but that's a very rare cause of death. For breast cancer, twice as high as would have been expected in the general population."
Most people in the U.S. develop cancer after 65, says Clapp. But he was finding rare cancers in workers who were still in their 30s and 40s.
"That means that there's something at work. That's the sort of clue," says Clapp. "A lot of them were working in manufacturing. They were working in jobs where they were exposed to chemicals such as solvents, or the chemicals used in making wafers."
Clapp also noted that he didn't find higher rates of brain cancer and breast cancer in executives, or office workers.
In court, IBM has said that Clapp's analysis is wrong. The company insists the records were used only to spot cancer trends. But Clapp says a company like IBM could have easily used the data to research worker health: "If they didn't, they should have. They could have and they should have."
Like many IBM workers that 60 Minutes II talked with, Robin Lapinski says she's angry: "There was not ever mention of cancer or birth defects to us, or I would have never been in there."
She says she was often told that the chemicals she worked with in East Fishkill, N.Y., were safe. She now believes that IBM knew better. In 1991, her son, Connor, was born with Retinoblastoma, a rare eye cancer that afflicts only 1 in 15,000 children. Lapinski believes the solvents she worked with that contained glycol ethers caused Connor's cancer.
Lapinski said she was working with glycol ethers while pregnant with Connor in 1991. This was eight years after IBM had received a bulletin from the federal government warning that animals exposed to the solvents showed "fetal abnormalities," "skeletal defects" and "embryonic deaths" -- and that there was also reason to expect "similar reproductive effects in humans."
"IBM is in no position to deny, and I don't believe that they can deny that they knew this," says attorney Steven Phillips, who represents Lapinski and about 50 other IBM workers who gave birth to children with cancer or severe birth defects. Some of the defects are so rare, Phillips says, that they've never been recorded in medical literature.
"Zachary Ruffing born with a terribly malformed jaw and throat," says Phillips. "Candayse Curtis, born with a skull too small for her brain, so that she's profoundly retarded. Ashley Tibault, she has what's called hydrocephalus, used to be in lay terms called water on the brain, but it compresses her brain."
Phillips has already settled one of the birth defect cases against IBM for nearly $40 million. There are 50 more cases pending.
Lapinski says she was never told about the possibility of birth defects with the chemicals she was working with. In fact, when she became pregnant with Connor, she says her manager specifically told her it was safe to be in the clean room.
What does she think of that now? "I can't say it on camera what I think," says Lapinski. "I feel betrayed."
While IBM argues in court that the clean rooms were safe, the company has phased out KTI 820, methylene chloride and glycol ethers. The clean rooms today are almost entirely automated and the Building 13 lab, with the cancer cluster, no longer exists.
Connor Lapinski is now 11. He's lost most vision in his right eye. As for Armida Mesa, Chris Ramm and Keith Barrack, their cancers are in remission. But they worry that what they didn't know may still come back to hurt them.
"I believe that we were human guinea pigs. Experiment, so to speak," says Barrack. "They knew these chemicals were bad from day one. They didn't care about us; they didn't care about human life. They cared about making money."
As 60 Minutes II mentioned earlier, IBM declined its request for an interview, but it did send a letter which says, in part: "Our hearts and prayers go out to the IBM employees and their families who have been stricken with this disease. However, there is absolutely no scientific evidence linking cancer to chemical use in any IBM work environment."
In court, IBM has argued that cancers among its employees are more likely the result of family histories or lifestyle choices such as smoking or drinking.
The lawsuits against Big Blue are being watched with great interest because most other big-name chip manufacturers used the same chemicals and processes.