Ling Chan gave up everything to come to America. Ten years ago, at the age of 48, she left behind her friends, family, and the only culture she ever knew. Her husband was too old to start over, so he stayed behind in Beijing with one of their two children. Chan arrived in the United States with no knowledge of English, no support network, and a dependent child. And because she speaks only Mandarin, she had a hard time finding work. So she was happy to land a janitorial job with AXT Inc., a Fremont semiconductor manufacturing firm. In early 2000, she was put to work on a four-person cleaning crew, scrubbing the boxes used to ship semiconductor wafers around the factory. Dressed in a white plastic suit, gloves, and a thin paper mask, she used industrial solvent to wipe the boxes clean of the dust that always coated them. But after a few weeks, her colleagues -- mostly Chinese immigrants, like herself -- whispered that this was no ordinary dust: It could give you cancer.
AXT specializes in growing crystals of gallium arsenide, a compound semiconductor whose properties have special applications in fiber optics and solar cells, and are used in everything from communications satellites to cellular telephones. Unfortunately, gallium arsenide is particularly brittle, and as workers slice and lathe it into wafers, they generate clouds of dust that drift in the air and can settle on their clothes and in their lungs. Once gallium arsenide finds its way into your body, it separates into its constituent elements, one of which is the carcinogen arsenic, one of the deadliest toxins known to man.
Still, Chan needed the work, and company officials had assured her she was safe. "Sometimes containers come in from wafer room, and they had broken wafers in there, so I had to handle them," she says through an interpreter. "They told us that our safety level was good, so we didn't have to worry much."
But gallium arsenide silently dusted the factory anew over the course of each shift. And according to one of Chan's associates, who asked not to be named, AXT's ventilation system was so inadequate that workers used to cough and gag. "It's even worse when it's foggy outside; the air would get worse," she says. "Sometimes the alarm would go off, and the manager would tell us to go outside and breathe for a little bit."
Every day, Chan poured industrial alcohol into dozens of boxes. She worked without goggles -- her supervisors did not provide any -- and her eyes were assaulted by the alcohol fumes and gallium arsenide dust. By the end of each shift, she and her co-workers would stagger to their cars, their eyes red, bleary, and inflamed, their vision so clouded they could barely see. At night, when Chan went to sleep, she says the pain felt as if someone were rubbing gravel and sand into the underside of her eyelids, or piercing her irises with little needles.
In October 2001, a woman on the cleaning crew asked Chan to look at her neck. "She asked if there are lumps in glands in her throat, and she went to the doctor the next day," Chan recalls. Her friend was eventually diagnosed with nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a cancer of the upper respiratory tract. She never returned to work and eventually was laid off. Today, she can no longer talk above a guttural wheeze.
The following April, another woman on Chan's crew was diagnosed with rectal cancer, which has left her unable to control her bowels. In the space of six months, half the members of her team discovered they were staring death in the face. Chan confronted her manager and asked if something was wrong with the air, but he told her not to worry. "They said, 'We have people working here for ten years, and they're okay,'" Chan says. "I was very worried, but I still had to work, so there was nothing I could do about it."
As it turned out, Chan wouldn't have to worry much longer. In September 2002, AXT outsourced her job to a new factory in China, firing her and more than one hundred other workers. When she came to pick up her two weeks of severance pay, she says, a manager told her that unless she signed a statement promising never to sue AXT, she wouldn't get her money. Chan signed the statement.
Eighteen months later, her vision is still foggy and blurred. She has heavy bags under her eyes, a face marked by stress fractures, and the sexless, clipped hair of a woman whose married life ended ten years ago. As the sounds of children playing outside drift in the windows, she sits on a bench in a dark room, her spine ramrod-straight, her legs crossed. Her hands twitch in her lap, and she picks at her cuticles, tearing little strings of skin. Like so many of her co-workers, she hasn't found a job since being fired by AXT. She wonders if she will get cancer, and what will happen to the child she's raising. Next month, her unemployment insurance will expire, and if she doesn't come up with the mortgage payments, the bank will foreclose on her house.
Sometimes, when AXT has a particularly heavy order to fill, the managers temporarily hire back some of their old employees. Every day, Chan hopes the phone will ring, and that she will be one of those employees. That's why she agreed to tell her tale only if identified by a pseudonym; she is willing to sear her eyes again for one more paycheck.
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