When you ponder real estate, at least in relation to Silicon Valley, you might be inclined to associate the area with rising real estate costs, income inequality, or the infamous buses that high-tech employees take to their jobs.
The Silicon Valley area
However, the truth about real estate in Silicon Valley is something entirely different, and significantly darker.
The Silicon Valley area (which is just one small part of the state of California) contains 29 sites designated as Superfund sites by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
By comparison, the entire state of Oklahoma has eight Superfund sites (as of 2010). Silicon Valley, alone, is beating an entire state’s record for contaminated sites—and this isn’t one of those numbers games that you want to be winning.
So what is a Superfund site? A Superfund site is defined as a contaminated site designated as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment (cleanup being paid for by the Superfund created by the U.S. congress)
How did Silicon Valley get this polluted?
Basically, if it’s so bad that the government is offering to clean it up and pay the bill for you, you know it’s a polluted area.
How did Silicon Valley get this polluted? To understand how this all came to pass, you need to take a trip back to the origins of Silicon Valley itself, which have a bigger impact on our everyday lives than you might initially think.
We live in a very electronic-focused world. You might be reading this article on your smartphone, or computer, connected with LTE or Wifi to a larger database called the Web.
Silicon Valley was the birthplace of many companies and technologies
And, odds are, most of the tech involved in that process wasn’t made in the United States. While a great deal of modern electronics are currently manufactured in overseas manufacturing centres like Taiwan, China, and South Korea, it hasn’t always been the case.
Many 0f the manufacturing processes used in these countries were first developed and used in the Silicon Valley area. It’s not really a stretch to say that Silicon Valley was the birthplace of many of the companies and technologies that form our modern world.
The growth of the tech industry in this area can be traced back as far as the 1930s and earlier.
Silicon Valley started to bloom in the 1950s
San Francisco’s location made it a logical hub of the early telegraph and radio industries. The area was also used for construction during the war years, with industries such as Hewlett Packard which built radar systems and oscilloscopes during the war.
Silicon Valley really started to bloom in the 1950’s, and the blossoming lasted for much of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s—building the legendary brand that is now known throughout the world.
This tech areas legend is built on an idea of almost infinite growth and possibility, and for a while, Silicon Valley delivered on that potential.
The valley was the birthplace of Bell Labs, HP, Nvidia…
Workers from one company learned what they could under the employ and guidance of various companies, and then jumped ship to start their own companies with different and more brilliant ideas.
The valley was the birthplace of Bell Labs, HP, Nvidia, AMD, Atari, Apple, and Oracle. It also served as a home for legendary idea labs such as the Xerox PARC lab (which played a key role in inventing a lot of the high-tech gadgets that we use in our day-to-day lives, such as fiber optic networks and graphical user interfaces), and the Stanford Research institute (which was one of the four original hubs of Arpanet, the predecessor to the Internet).
Basically, it seemed like Silicon Valley was an express train to endless growth that would never stop. But like most trains, there is usually a final, terminating destination.
Haven for software developers and venture capitalists
Since 2001, the Valley lost approximately 93,000 jobs to overseas tech manufacturing companies. High wages and real estate costs contributed to the outsourcing trend with jobs going to off-continent technological centres; many jobs were replaced with automation.
This isn’t to say that the area is in trouble economically though. Although Silicon Valley was a high-tech manufacturing centre in its formative years, the area is mostly known now as a haven for software developers and venture capitalists, and they bring a very different sort of job to the area.
The area is still delivering new companies. It helped birth Twitter, Facebook, and Uber. However, these companies largely make their profits off ideas and software code, not from manufactured objects.
Enter the darker legacy of the Valley
It appears that the days of Silicon Valley being a major manufacturing centre have passed, and considering the environmental impact that the area still experiences from leftover chemical waste, this might not entirely be a bad thing.
The environmental challenges that Silicon Valley now faces go back to those early days of manufacturing. The processes developed to create transistors, microchips, and other technological marvels often involved strong chemicals.
Companies needed to create things that often couldn’t be done by hand and they needed to do so at a reasonable cost.
Toxic chemicals involved in the production of computer hardware
Unfortunately, some of those chemicals came with side effects that ended up being unhealthy.
There are several toxic chemicals involved in the production of computer hardware, but to keep this simple (and make sure we write an article and not an entire book) we are going to look at a single chemical involved in the process of fabricating microchips: an industrial solvent called trichloroethylene (or TCE for short).
The vision of electronic manufacturing most of us have is one that reflects the last few years, not the decades that precede them.
The early days of Silicon Valley weren’t always so pristine
We think of clean rooms, protective suits, and highly regulated environments. The early days of Silicon Valley weren’t always so pristine. As companies raced to new technological heights, they sometimes used processes and chemicals with a health and environmental impact that they didn’t completely understand.
In the early days of Silicon Valley, there were few, if any regulations regarding the use, storage, and disposal of chemicals such as TCE. At the time, it also wasn’t known how toxic the chemicals like TCE actually were—there just wasn’t enough data—so people focused on the beneficial uses of the chemical.
In fact, for a time TCE was used as part of the dry-cleaning process, and even was used as an anaesthetic (TCE was only officially classified as a known carcinogen in 2005 and has also been linked to birth defects).
Exposure to TCE depresses the nervous system
Exposure to TCE depresses the nervous system, which was why it found a use as an anaesthetic. Non-medical exposure to TCE can create a condition similar to alcohol intoxication, and excessive exposure can depress functions in the respiratory and circulatory systems to a point where death occurs.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, long-term exposure to the chemical has been linked to toxic impacts on the kidneys and liver. Additionally, the chemical can easily pass through soil into underground water supplies, and once in the water, it can’t be easily removed or dealt with using normal water purification techniques.
Basically, while it is very useful in a number of different ways, TCE is definitely a chemical that comes with some baggage.
No one had long-term exposure data
We should state that this isn’t a story of deliberate corporate neglect, nor are we pointing a finger of blame at a specific company. TCE has served a number of uses in a wide variety of different industries, including as an industrial cleanser.
In the dawn of TCE use, chemists were unaware of its impact and its contamination potential. No one had long-term exposure data. As people often do, we embraced the discovery without necessarily researching and thinking of future consequence.
Unfortunately, when it comes to TCE and the other toxic chemicals used in the early days of Silicon Valley, ignorance was anything but bliss.
Some companies stored the solvents like TCE and other chemicals in underground tanks
This ignorance and lack of oversight has had some serious and long-lasting impacts. For example, some companies stored the solvents like TCE and other chemicals in underground tanks.
However, underground storage tanks weren’t regulated for a long period of time, leading to some unfortunate, but unsurprising consequences. A 1985 survey of underground solvent tanks found leaks at 75 out of 96 sites.
The problems weren’t just with underground storage tanks though, according to Amanda Hawes, a worker’s rights attorney in Silicon Valley: “I think it wasn’t unheard of for stuff to be literally poured out the back door.”
Chemicals as part of the electronic manufacturing process
All too often, environmental laws and regulations are chasing the leading edge of technology because the scientific discoveries typically precede the knowledge of their health and environmental impacts.
This isn’t to say that there were no laws at the time, just that nobody knew the impact of the chemicals we used as part of the electronic manufacturing process which meant the laws of the time were often completely inadequate to deal with how toxic the chemicals turned out to be.
Even companies that used disposal techniques that were considered state of the art at the time had their own issues with toxicity from relatively small spills and leaks on site.
We now know just how dangerous and difficult to contain some of these solvents and other chemicals can be. It is no small thing when a chemical like TCE makes its way into the groundwater, potentially causing problems in much larger areas.
Real estate in the Valley has been booming. The price of Silicon Valley real estate continues to be a hot topic in the news across North America, and it leads to a number of challenges in the local area.
Property comes at a premium price, and although the original tenants might be gone (many of the early companies from Silicon Valley no longer exist), there are several buildings on or near Superfund sites that are still being used.
Real estate is in high demand
Some companies were founded next to these sites and only discovered it after the fact; other companies choose to inhabit the buildings on Superfund sites because they need to do so.
To put it bluntly, there’s just no choice in some instances, as real estate is in such high demand. This leads to new potential issues, as the companies of modern-day Silicon Valley continue to suffer from the mistakes of their predecessors—sometimes companies that have been dead and gone for decades.
Even the companies that don’t manufacture electronics can pay the price, such as in 2013 when some Google employees at a satellite campus were potentially exposed to harmful quantities of TCE because they were occupying leased buildings on a Superfund site.
Silicon Valley is working to ensure it doesn’t make the same mistakes twice
Remember how toxic we said TCE was earlier in the article? Exposure to the chemical is a very serious thing, so any mishaps are alarming and potentially fatal. Stricter environmental laws continue to evolve, working to ensure the safety of workers in existing buildings, even as the cleanup continues
If nothing else, Silicon Valley is working to ensure it doesn’t make the same mistakes twice.
So it’s business as usual—people are living in these communities, working and playing; companies continue to grow, all the while a massive cleanup effort is occurring below the surface, sometimes literally right below the ground they are standing on.
From the mid 1980s through 2008, over 200 million gallons of ground water have been pumped out and treated—that’s the equivalent of over 300 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of water—and the job isn’t even close to completed yet.
Treating the pollution directly in the ground
Other efforts involve treating the pollution directly in the ground using microbes that can break down chemicals like TCE (a process known as bioremediation).
While progress has been made, the work is far from done. Even when these Superfund sites have been decontaminated, there are hundreds of additional polluted sites not on the National Priorities List in the Santa Clara area alone.
Toxic chemicals can easily spread out from leaks, and not all storage and disposal sites were properly documented—leading to some unpleasant surprises over the years.
Tech companies in the valley have spent hundred of millions of dollars
Unfortunately, the Superfund efforts only focus on sites in the most polluted locations, leaving the other spots for other organizations and levels of government to resolve.
The good news is that the various levels of government aren’t tackling this problem alone—the high-tech community of modern day, whose “ancestors” helped create this problem are also stepping up to help solve it.
Tech companies in the valley have spent hundred of millions of dollars of their own money cleaning up sites, and the government is also working to deal with polluted areas through the efforts of organizations like the EPA.
There is an obvious benefit for this cooperation: as sites are cleaned more areas become useable, there is more room to grow within Silicon Valley.
There are many years left to go
Unfortunately, the efforts required are substantial. Even with all the money and effort devoted to cleaning up the toxic remnants of early Silicon Valley, there are many years left to go (some estimates say as much as 700 years are required for a full recovery).
This means that we’ll all likely be reading about this effort in the history books long before someone can say that the cleanup job is finished.
There is always a lesson to be learned. Technology generally advances faster than our understanding of how innovations impact the world around us.
World without the computers?
This is important to remember as we race to adapt and adopt new technology in our life. Just think, where a few years ago people worked to make their software and gadgets more addictive, now industry giants like Google are starting to tackle the important question of how to make their technology less addictive.
It might seem absolutely impossible to imagine a world without the computers that were first created in Silicon Valley, but their creation came at a cost.
- Silicon Valley
- Google workers at Superfund site exposed
- The Secret History of Silicon Valley and the Toxic Remnants of the First Computers
- Toxic Plumes: The Dark Side of Silicon Valley
- Cleanup of Silicon Valley Superfund site takes environmental toll
- Poison Valley
- Silicon Valley’s toxic past: How tech waste contaminated Mountain View and beyond
- How toxic waste turned the heart of Silicon Valley into a self-storage complex
- Not Even Silicon Valley Escapes History
- Ground‐Water Contamination in Silicon Valley
- IBM confronts toxic legacy: cleanup will cost millions, last for years
- Google’s Plan To Make Tech Less Addictive
- Timeline: PARC milestones
- National Toxicology Program: Trichloroethylene