15 July 2011

Samsung denies causing cancers

Samsung Electronics rejected that employees may have been exposed to carcinogenic chemicals at its plants, as several cancer-stricken former employees seek compensation.


Samsung Electronics rejected that employees may have been exposed to carcinogenic chemicals at its plants, as several cancer-stricken former employees seek compensation.

Despite the findings, the South Korean firm said it would consider offering financial support for some of its former employees diagnosed with cancer, following allegations by civic groups and some former employees that its working environment caused leukaemia.

Samsung says 26 of its employees who worked at its chip plants had been diagnosed with leukaemia or lymphoma, and 10 of them had died of cancer. Civic groups say there are many more workers who have become ill due to a hazardous working environment.

Samsung commissioned US consulting firm Environ Corp last year to conduct an investigation following continued pressure, despite two previous studies by the government, which found no problems at Samsung's plants.

The study vindicates Samsung

Samsung is the world's largest chipmaker after Intel Corp and earned R191.896 billion from chip sales last year. Its sprawling semiconductor factories in Giheung, where its chip business first started, employ more than 30,000 people.

The study focused on six cases involved in compensation claims and concluded there was no link between workplace exposure and diagnosed cancers.

"We did not find a link between exposure to cancer-causing chemicals and the health conditions of six employees," Paul Harper, principal of the health sciences consulting firm, told reporters.

Formaldehyde, ionizing radiation and trichloroethylene were the only chemicals and agents used or detected on Samsung's lines that are known to be related to the cancers in question, Environ said.

None of the six cases were exposed to the carcinogens in sufficient quantities to be associated with increased risks of cancer, Environ said.

The old chip production lines where employees worked and later developed the illnesses were converted into chip test lines and light-emitting diode production lines. The study was based on reconstructed exposures estimated by similar exposure groups.

Court cases continue

The finding comes after a Seoul court ruled in favour of two former Samsung employees. In its ruling, the Seoul Administrative Court said although the precise cause of the workers' illness wasn't clear, it can be construed that their exposures to chemicals may have had some connection with their illness.

A total of nine cases are filed against the government-run Korea Workers Compensation & Welfare Service, but not directly against Samsung.

The government fund said it appealed against the ruling and Samsung said its review was not aimed at influencing the court case.

"It's not part of our legal strategy but rather part of our attempt to fully assess whether there are any problems in Samsung's working environment," a Samsung executive in the legal department told reporters.

Groups doubt study but Samsung remains adamant

Civic groups and activists expressed scepticism about results of the study, which was reviewed by researchers from Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, University of Michigan and Yale University.

Samsung didn't disclose the full report of the review, citing a confidentiality agreement with its chemicals suppliers, and said it will consider releasing parts of the document after more review.

Samsung reiterated that chemicals used during the chip making process at its plants had not caused the cancers.

"Samsung has worked to transparently address questions about workplace health and safety...We believe this consistent with previous studies that found no correlation between the workplace environment and employee illness," Kwon Oh-hyun, head of Samsung's chip business, told reporters.

Case not the first of its kind

The reputation of the electronics sector as a clean industry has been challenged in the past decade by cancer developments from those who worked at computer parts manufacturers.

In 2003, two former workers of International Business Machine sued the firm, claiming their exposure to chemicals in computer disk drive factory made them sick and ultimately gave them cancer.

Later the claim was cleared by a US court, and IBM commissioned independent review, which concluded that its workplace conditions did not cause cancer or other fatal illnesses.

(Reuters Health, July 2011)

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