Making the count: a US study is to explore the cancer rates of workers in semiconductor factories. Credit: P. PSAILA/SPL

Makers of microchips are planning a study of more than 200,000 people to determine whether workers in semiconductor plants have an increased risk of cancer.

The Semiconductor Industry Association, a trade group representing nearly 100 US-based companies, announced on 20 August that it was seeking proposals for the study, which will use the health records of workers in US microchip plants.

The study is planned partially in response to hundreds of recent lawsuits brought by former employees, who allege that work in semiconductor factories gave them cancer. According to John Greenagel, the association's director of communications, the goal is to conclusively determine whether factory workers are more likely to get cancer. “We want the facts,” he says.

But some researchers question whether the study can be truly impartial in the hands of an industry trade group that is representing defendants in the ongoing lawsuits. “Anything published will be highly screened by the industry sponsors,” claims Joseph LaDou, who specializes in occupational medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

Materials that can cause cancer if ingested, such as arsenic and beryllium, have been used for decades in semiconductor manufacturing, but until now only a handful of studies have looked for increased cancer risks among employees. In 2001, a study by Britain's Health and Safety Executive of more than 4,000 workers at a National Semiconductor plant in Greenock, Scotland, found that female workers were two to three times more likely than other women in the area to have lung cancer.

A more recent study of deaths among roughly 30,000 former IBM employees in the United States showed an increased incidence of cancer. But that study was pulled from an Elsevier journal earlier this summer before it could be published (see Nature 429, 687; 2004).

“We hope this new study will either give us something to work on or provide reassurances to people that the industry is safe,” says Greenagel. He says that the research will be conducted independently. “They will have rights to publish their findings,” he says of the researchers. But he adds that the scientists will not be able to identify specific companies in their research. “There will be confidentiality restrictions,” he says.

For his part, LaDou remains doubtful and says he wishes the study was being conducted independently by a government agency. “If this had been placed in the hands of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health or the National Cancer Institute, we would all be relieved to see it move ahead,” he says.

But other researchers are cautiously optimistic. “I think it's a positive step,” says Richard Clapp, an environmental health expert at Boston University, who led the unpublished IBM study. “If you can get good, independent scientists, I think it's possible to get honest results.”