The AXT Way 

Meet Xuan Wen Li. Fremont semiconductor firm AXT, Inc. poisoned him with arsenic, then fired him - just as it did with up to 500 other Chinese immigrants.

Page 5 of 10

But AXT also started fighting back. Government records report that executives began "stonewalling" requests for more information, and the company hired San Francisco-based Littler Mendelsohn, the nation's largest employment law firm, whose lawyers enjoy such a fearsome reputation that one labor lawyer claims that union organizers refer to the firm as "Hitler Mussolini." The company cut its teeth on fighting organizing drives wherever they cropped up, but as the labor movement began to fall apart in the early 1980s, its partners expanded into areas such as disability, sexual harassment, and discrimination. Suddenly, Brown


Arsenic can kill you all at once or a little bit at a time. Even small doses can trigger a compendium of health problems. According to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control, chronic exposure to inorganic arsenic can cause "arsenic warts," or polyps on the palms, soles of the feet, and torso. Arsenic also can cause nausea, vomiting, anemia, cardiovascular disease, blood vessel damage, and mild neurological effects such as a sensation of pins and needles in the hands.

Arsenic also is associated with cancers of the bladder, liver, kidney, and prostate, but the most common arsenic-related cancers attack the skin and lungs. According to University of Washington professor of public health David Eaton, arsenic appears to work synergistically with smoking to greatly increase your chances of getting lung cancer. A 2002 survey from the American Journal of Public Health found that 34 percent of Chinese-American men smoked cigarettes, making them one of the heaviest-smoking demographic groups in the country.

That said, medical science knows very little about the health effects of airborne inorganic arsenic because it's an uncommon occupational hazard. The most prevalent arsenic vector is groundwater contaminated by naturally occurring deposits or discharge from mines and other heavy industries. As a result, researchers have largely focused on the effects of ingesting arsenic in drinking water. The most notorious instance of airborne arsenic contamination occurred near Tacoma, Washington, where a copper smelter operated until the mid-1980s. Over the course of 76 years, smelter operators pumped so much arsenic through their smokestacks that they contaminated more than two hundred square miles of land around Puget Sound. "There have been relatively few studies of airborne exposures to arsenic," Eaton says. "The Tacoma smelter is the best. They took all the workers and looked at how many of them over time developed cancer, and they found that more of them developed lung cancer than they would have expected without the exposure."

Because so little is known about airborne arsenic, it would be foolish to automatically assume that AXT employees who got sick did so as a result of arsenic exposure. For example, it's unlikely that arsenic caused the rectal cancer of Mrs. Chan's janitorial colleague, because that cancer is fairly common and not known to be associated with arsenic exposure. On the other hand, nasopharyngeal carcinoma is a somewhat more likely candidate, since that cancer is rare and associated with chemical pollutants. As for arsenic's effects on reproduction and fetal development, research scientists simply haven't studied it enough to draw definitive conclusions. Several studies of women living close to arsenic-rich copper smelters and contaminated wells have found an increase in spontaneous abortions, low birth weights, and fatal birth defects. However, a 1995 study found no connection between miscarriages and arsenic in the semiconductor industry.

Such limited data is the plaintiff's great barrier to occupational safety litigation. We may intuitively know that arsenic is bad for you, but proving in court that a specific case of toxic exposure caused a specific illness is all but impossible in most cases. After all, research scientists estimate that arsenic-induced lung cancer takes fifteen to twenty years to develop. And even clear proof of toxic exposure may not be enough to hold employers liable. Across the country, but especially in California, the cards are stacked against employees. "You cannot sue unless the employer knows you're sick, and the illness is caused at the workplace, and they fail to report it," says Richard Alexander, one of the attorneys in the failed lawsuit against IBM. "They're entitled to poison you -- that's the problem with California law. ... That's the problem we ran into with the IBM case."


Although the link between arsenic and AXT workers' health problems is far from clear, Garrett Brown knew at least one thing: Company executives knew exactly what they were doing. On April 5, Brown drew up a preliminary list of 44 charges against the company. AXT, he wrote, had allowed its ventilation system to degrade, failed to train employees in handling arsenic, withheld respirators and other protective gear, exposed employees to arsenic, and failed to notify employees that they had been exposed. Moreover, Brown wrote that AXT's safety manager, Ed Haggerty, "was aware that these exposures presented a hazard to the employees."

One employee who'd been exposed at four times the legal limit told Brown that company managers had assured him his arsenic test had turned out "okay." In fact, according to Brown's memo, Haggerty had claimed that AXT vice president Davis Zhang ordered him to stop warning workers about the arsenic levels because the "letters [were] getting employees upset and concerned." Haggerty could not be reached for comment, and Zhang has not returned phone calls.

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