In Cancer-Causation Case, Science Loses in South Korean Court

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S.Korean chip worker Computer Chip Worker in South Korea, via Shutterstock

A recent decision by a South Korean administrative court found that the ovarian cancer which killed a Samsung plant worker at the age of 36 bore a "significant causal relationship" to her long-term exposure to certain chemicals involved in the process of making silicon chips.

The deceased worker, Lee Eun-joo, began her six-year career at the Samsung factory in 1993 at the age of 17. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer around 2001 and died in 2012 after battling the disease for more than a decade.

The court said that the glues she used for attaching a silicon wafer to a lead frame contained harmful substances, such as formaldehyde and phenol. According to the court s safety documents, phenol can promote tumors and formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. The court ruled that although the concentration of the harmful chemicals was low, the stricken worker had been exposed to them for a long time.

Perhaps out of (reasonable) concern that the evidence supporting such a causal link was scanty to nonexistent, the court also included night shifts and the factory s ventilation system as possible contributory factors upon issuing their ruling, along with the accompanying mandate to Samsung to compensate the family. (In South Korea, a government agency levies companies and oversees insurance for workers with occupational diseases.)

So what does the science say about this so-called carcinogenic workplace exposure?

Well, formaldehyde was indeed recently classified by our National Toxicology Program as a "carcinogen." Here's what the National Cancer Institute says: "[The NTP] classified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen under conditions of unusually high or prolonged exposure."

But even that classification was based upon (very) long-term exposures among groups such as embalmers, and the cancers with (slightly) elevated risks were nasopharyngeal cancer and a controversial link to leukemia, still being debated by professional and scientific groups.

As for phenol, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) collected the main agency viewpoints here: "The IARC classification for phenol is Group 3, not classifiable with regard to its carcinogenicity to humans (IARC 2004). The EPA cancer classification for phenol is D, not classifiable as to human carcinogenicity (IRIS 2006). The National Toxicology Program has not classified phenol for human carcinogenicity (NTP 2005). The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) has classified phenol as an A4 carcinogen (not classifiable as a human carcinogen) (ACGIH 2005)."

In sum, the scientific evidence connecting the late Ms. Lee's ovarian cancer with her relatively brief exposure to the impugned chemicals is lacking. Adjudging her fatal cancer as being work-related was a benevolent move on the part of the court, at least in its own eyes (I would assume). But the ramifications it will likely have upon the computer industry in South Korea, and indeed in all industries that use chemicals globally, could be devastating, making this one award incendiary in its baseless effects. (See below, e.g.).

"Banolim, an advocacy group, says it has details of more than 200 current or former Samsung workers suffering from grave diseases such as leukemia. Of them, 76 have died. Less than a dozen cases had a causal relationship recognized by courts or the government."

That statement might well be a harbinger of many more such litigious acts, whose plaintiffs could be any plant worker coming down with any cancer (among many other illnesses) alleged to be chemically-related. In the U.S., we have some barriers in place to prevent ad hoc theories of cancer causation based upon vague links and plays upon judicial sympathy. Not so, apparently, in South Korea.