Silicon Valley Cancer Scare

Growing up in Silicon Valley, it was a dream come true when two Foutche sisters landed jobs with Big Blue. Two decades later, 50-year-old Linda Foutche says working for IBM may cut her life short. Both she and her sister have cancer, reports CBS News Correspondent Sandra Hughes.

"Two girls that worked for IBM," says Foutche,"My other sisters didn't work there and they're fine, the other two."

Linda's rare skin cancer has spread and she's not able to work anymore. But for 20 years she made computer chips in an IBM clean room, a sterile environment where dozens of toxic chemicals are used to make the chips.

"I would go check out acetones, freons, photoresists, bottles marked with skull and crossbones," she says. "I even would ask the gal in the chemical room, 'Gee, are these things safe?' You know. 'Oh yeah! We work for IBM it's safe, you know that.'"

Like hundreds of other workers in the industry, Linda wore a head-to-toe bunny suit. But the suits were meant to protect the sensitive chips from dust and human contamination, not to protect the employees.

After working in the clean room for only a year, Linda says she not only became sterile, but very ill as well. "Your eyes would water, your nose would run. I had skin rashes," she says.

When Linda got sick, she says IBM told her the problem wasn't in the clean room, it was in her head and she needed to see a psychiatrist. CBS News obtained a letter from that psychiatrist that says "Miss Foutche has primarily a chronic medical illness... from exposure to toxic substances in her work environment at IBM Corporation."

Who does Foutche hold responsible for her illness? "I hold the chemical companies, I hold IBM, the industry for not telling people."

Lee Leth blames Big Blue too. The 56-year-old former IBM engineer often inspected the clean rooms as part of his job. "My wife noticed that I came home several times with acid holes in my shirt," he says. "I didn't think anything of it at the time, until we started having this problem."

The problem is bone cancer. A disease that has left the once strong and tall Leth six inches shorter and unable to walk without crutches.

"I don't want to see other people facing this problem that I'm having," he says. It's a miserable, terrible, painful illness."

Leth and Foutche are among 130 former employees and surviving relatives who are suing IBM, claiming the chemicals used there gave workers cancer.

In a statement to CBS News IBM said: "We do not believe that any of the illnesses that people claim they contracted while working at IBM were the result of working at IBM."

That claim doesn't surprise Dr. Joe Ladou, an occupational health specialist who has studied the semiconductor industry for 30 years. "The workers were getting very high levels of exposure and were not being told, and I believe that's still trutoday in many of these plants."

Those levels don't exceed government standards. The trouble is no one knows if the levels of exposure are enough to cause cancer because so far no one's been able to investigate.

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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