How Silicon Valley’ high-tech electronics industry wrecked California’s sylvan life

Soil and water pollution caused by the supposedly green industry harmed several communities.

On Labor Day 1956, a caravan of moving trucks wound their way into Santa Clara County, just south of San Francisco, carrying the possessions of 600 families and equipment for the missile and space labs of the Lockheed Corporation. One month later, Lockheed’s Sunnyvale campus opened for business. Many of the arriving families were relocating to Sunnyvale from the company’s facility in Burbank, in southern California.

The draw included good jobs in the emerging businesses of electronics research and development, as well as manufacturing of semiconductors and other electronic components for machinery and computers. Affordable housing, a pastoral landscape and a pleasant environment proved very attractive for newcomers. Local boosters, corporate executives and new residents alike envisioned a modern future in stark contrast with the declining dirty urban industrial model of the Northeast and the Midwest.

This type of industrial work and manufacturing didn’t need smokestacks, large warehouses, or other markers of the industrial age. The Santa Clara Valley’s promise for leading northern California into a bright economic future quickly brought the area the nickname Silicon Valley. But in the book I am writing, I note that if this convergence of natural surroundings, suburban homes and high-tech industrialisation represented a facet of the California dream, it also betrayed it.

A promising advertisement for homes in San Jose. San Jose Mercury, January 18, 1956
A promising advertisement for homes in San Jose. San Jose Mercury, January 18, 1956

Bright illusion

In addition to jobs in electronics and aerospace, the emerging suburbs of Silicon Valley promised newcomers a countryside experience. David Beers, whose father worked at the Sunnyvale Lockheed campus, remembered the chamber of commerce brochures claiming an “all-year garden” and “the most beautiful valleys in the world”. Such advertisements were common, assuring home buyers “good living,” the “calm of the country” and “a beautiful walnut and cherry orchard” that “the builder is leaving…for your enjoyment”. The white collar workers of high-tech could make their homes in what appeared to be the countryside.

Workplaces, too, were different, with manufacturing happening in places that didn’t look like the old industries of the East. The Stanford Industrial Park, founded in the early 1950s, had strict building guidelines that made it look more like a suburban area than a manufacturing center. Crucially, 60% of each lot had to be preserved as open green space, and no smokestacks were allowed. “Everyone thought of smokestacks,” recalled Alf Brandin, Stanford’s business manager in the 1940s and 1950s. “These new people who came out from the East and settled here thought, ‘Don’t change it. We just left all the smoke and all that junk. Don’t change this’.”

The overall feeling was of much more than just a good job and a nice place to live: a new world was opening, based on computing. Promising young engineers could come west, buy a home and work in the future of the nation’s industry. “There’s a sense of being pioneers here,” Mark Leslie, founder of Synapse Computers, told a reporter in 1982. “I view myself as the kind of guy who would have been living in Detroit in 1910. The future depends on high technology, and we are spearheading it.”

Recent college graduates and white collar workers flocked to the valley to work at companies like Fairchild, Intel, Hewlett Packard, IBM and Lockheed. The county’s population more than quadrupled in 30 years, from 2,90,547 in 1950 to 12,65,200 in 1980. But the clean, gleaming future they imagined was already being tarnished.

The Conversation, CC-BY-ND.
The Conversation, CC-BY-ND.

Fairchild contamination

Semiconductor manufacturing involves very carefully connecting microscopic electrical components to each other on large plates of silicon. Pieces of dust can block sensitive circuits, and the smallest scratches can render everything useless. So to clean the silicon wafers and the parts joined to them, manufacturers used harsh chemical solvents like 1,1,1 trichloroethane, xylene and methanol. These chemicals were stored on-site in containers designed to safely hold them.

But in December 1981, construction workers discovered a leaking chemical solvents tank at Fairchild Semiconductor’s southern San José facility. A cancer-causing chemical, TCE, had found its way into nearby drinking water wells. The water company promptly shut off pumping water from those wells. A month later, the San Jose Mercury broke the story of the leak. TCE accumulated in wells at nearly 20 times the permissible limit established by the Environmental Protection Agency. Over the course of two years, over 60,000 gallons of toxic chemicals had leaked from the tank, spreading underground more than half a mile into the surrounding neighbourhood of Los Paseos.

For residents of Los Paseos, just across the street from Fairchild, the news of the chemical leak suddenly explained the stories of birth defects among their neighbours. Lorraine Ross, whose daughter had her first open-heart surgery at nine months old, couldn’t help but wonder if the four birth defects, two miscarriages and one stillbirth of Los Paseos in the past two years were connected to water contamination. She organised others in the neighbourhood to ask questions, eventually partnering with a young lawyer, Ted Smith, who founded a new advocacy organisation called the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. It was designed to advocate for neighbourhoods, helping draft new county and city ordinances related to the storage, transportation and disposal of chemicals and gases in Santa Clara County.

News of the Fairchild leak captured the attention of the San Francisco Bay Area. The presence of these chemicals and synthetics was a revelation. “There was no doubt in my mind that this was a clean industry,” remarked San José Mayor Janet Gray Hayes. Lorraine Ross echoed this sentiment, telling a reporter “we thought we were living with a clean industry”. But it wasn’t true.

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition flyer.  Folder 3, Box 11, Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition Papers, San Jose State University
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition flyer. Folder 3, Box 11, Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition Papers, San Jose State University

Widespread pollution

Fairchild wasn’t alone in polluting the vibrant environment and thriving communities around its industrial sites. By 1992, one study found that 57 private and 47 public drinking wells were contaminated. Santa Clara County authorities determined that 65 of the 79 companies they investigated had contaminated the soil beneath their facilities. Several companies were forced to pay several million dollars for the cleanup of polluted sites, as well as install new monitoring equipment to prevent leaks for occurring again. Fairchild Semiconductor and other companies in the Los Paseos area found to have contaminated the water agreed to pay a multi-million-dollar settlement to 530 residents in southern San José.

The Environmental Protection Agency eventually determined 29 polluted sites were eligible for Superfund cleanup money over the course of the 1980s – 24 of which resulted from high-tech industries. Under Superfund, polluted sites that particularly threaten wildlife or human health become eligible for federal funding to help clean up hazardous and contaminated sites. By the end of the 1980s, Santa Clara County had more Superfund sites than any other county in the United States. Twenty three of the sites remain in remediation today.

By accident and by neglect, the promise of clean industrialisation proved elusive. Thousands of people migrated to the Santa Clara Valley hoping to take part in the remarkable convergence of affordable housing and new jobs. While smokestacks were absent from electronics manufacturing, the presence of highly toxic chemicals – trichloroethane and chlorinated solvents – shattered the illusion behind the tech industry’s green image. The industry permanently altered the land and human bodies.

Jason A Heppler is Digital Engagement Librarian and Assistant Professor of History, University of Nebraska, Omaha.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.


During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.