Documentary Exposes Electronic Industry

Drew Kaplan ‘20, Editor-In-Chief

Around 25 students gathered in the Stafford Auditorium for a screening of Death by Design, “a documentary focused on the human and environmental health implications of the electronics industry,” according to the Dickinson College website. 

The movie explored how, in past years, large companies such as Intel and International Business Machines (IBM) had portrayed the production of semiconductors, an essential computer component, as environmentally friendly using depictions of workers in the industry in full protective clothing. However, according to Ted Smith, founder of the Silicon Valley Toxics Foundation, these operations are better described as “chemical handling companies” due to their use of such compounds as asbestos, sulfuric acid, hexanes, lead, and mercury. Smith explained that large numbers of people began to fall ill in communities where these factories exist or existed previously, with the compounds used being directly linked to their ailments, in large part various cancers and birth defects. 

Amanda Hawes, a lawyer for a class action suit against IBM, noted within the film that IBM had kept a file on people who died as a result of chemical exposure at their facilities, and that rates of these illness, in large part various cancers, well exceeded the cancer rates of the general population. 

“There was an arrogance and a hubris” Smith states in the film, noting that efforts to list sites contaminated by the actions of these companies as superfund sites by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in large part led to these companies moving overseas. This not only allowed companies to dodge environmental regulations, but also access cheap labor, and outsource the production of many of their components to various third party companies, and assign blame to them whenever environmental concerns were raised. In China, the cost of fines for environmental regulation is lower than the cost of bringing factories into compliance, which has led many companies to simply accept the fines as a cost of doing business. Moreover, the more relaxed labor laws have led to a series of stress related suicides by factory workers.

The film also touched on the issues facing future generations as a result of pollution generated from these industries, detailing the town of Endicott NY, residents of which saw several cases of cancer directly from a solvent leak from an IBM factory.

Smith also touched on the “what happened to these products as they became obsolete,” noting the level of resources used by the industry, and the lack of reuse of old electronic products. Much of this waste is sent to China, where it is disposed of in a non-environmentally friendly way. The result is a marked increase in pollution rates, with much of the air pollution able to travel back across the Pacific Ocean to the American West Coast. 

Reception to the screening was positive. “It was very eye opening, and it definitely makes me want to change my purchasing habits” said Kat Usavage ’23.

The film was “mind blowing in a negative way” according to Sarah Wood ’23,  “I never thought of how much water is being contaminated.”

“It illuminated just how expendable the heads of big companies treat their workers and the environment” said Katie Lurie ’23, who also noted the role the emphasis placed by companies on profitability played in causing environmental degradation. “It was jarring.”

Anna Burke ’22 added “the fact that they have nets outside of their factories to prevent workers from killing themselves instead of treating their workers better is mind-blowing to me.”

“We’re really prompting people to think more carefully about their consumption, especially around the holiday season,” said Center for Sustainability Education (CSE) Carbon Neutrality Coordinator Willow Huppert ’20, “our main goal here is to make people think about their own values when it comes to consumption. There are so many levels to the products we consume. We really want people to have a conversation with themselves [to ask] do ethics and labor practices matter” when individuals are making purchases. “Those are going to be different for everyone, and we want people to think about what they are for themselves” Huppert said.

The Death by Design screening was hosted by CSE as part of their “Purchase Consciously” movie series. The screening was held in the Stafford Auditorium on Monday, Nov. 18 at 7 p.m.