Death By Design:  

Written, Produced & Directed by Sue Williams


How many electronic devices do you have currently?

How many have you had over the years?

How much do you rely on them?

Filmmaker Sue Williams isn’t trying to make you feel bad about this, it’s happening to us all. In the past twenty years, our lives and how we connect with others has completely changed. “I started making this film to explore the impact of our digital revolution,” says Williams. But in her hunt for illumination about the cost of our “digital dependency”, she found that she has uncovered a world of secrets that industries have tried to keep hidden for years. “How our electronics are made and unmade is dirty and dangerous,” she says at the start of the film. The process of producing electronics wreaks havoc across the board, damaging lives and the environment, while ensuring that these devices have a limited lifespan, designed so as to die to keep the industry producing, progressing and polluting at a steady clip.

The film first explores how this massive and growing operation damages lives and we are given a peek into how far-reaching the chemicals involved in the production of our electronic devices have been able to range.

Of all the consequences of electronics pollution, says Ma Jun of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in China, “the biggest impact is on public health. We have nearly 300 million residents who don’t have access to sufficient safe drinking water.”

“More than 60% of China’s groundwater is considered unfit for human contact.”

A local man speaking in Mandarin rows them through sludge-infested waters near an electronics factory discharging copper, cyanide and solvents into a lake near the Yangtze River. He picks up the gray gunk with his paddle. “Factories like these should be shut down,” he says, “They’re hurting our generation and they’ll hurt the next one, too.”

Jun was determined that people all around the world who use these gadgets become informed about this, and about the people of his country who suffer just so that we could always be sure to have the newest sleek electronic of the moment.

The early eighties brought the first personal computers (PCs) and the onset of the global electronics industry to the stage, a stage set in California’s Silicon Valley, which is where viewers are taken next. The public saw the dawn of the industry as it was advertised, an immaculately clean industry. They had no reason to believe it was in any way harmful to neither humans nor the environment. Images in the news depicted manufacturing sites that were as clean as a hospital, with workers were dressed in protective white bunny suits, working in designated clean rooms. But what we didn’t know was that it was all to protect the chips and sensitive microcircuits. “It was never designed to protect the workers,” says Ted Smith, Founder of Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, “It was always designed to protect the product itself.”

And the production of this precious product relied on hundreds to thousands of extremely toxic chemicals. As workers started to get sick, realization set in that it might be thanks to those very chemicals that they were in such close, constant contact with.

Yvette Flores worked in the electronics field in the 1980s. She bore a child during that time with permanent developmental disabilities caused by severe systemic chemical poisoning. He doesn’t even know to cross the street and to stop if a car is coming, she says. The material that Flores worked with, as she later found out, was made up of 50% lead oxide. But, despite OSHA standards in place that require hazard communication and medical removal, the exposed employees were left in the dark.  “Do I think this was preventable?” asks Amanda Hawes, a lawyer in the legal team that filed a lawsuit in the 90s on behalf of IBM workers with health problems, “Oh yea I do.”

In an IBM Corporate Mortality File, which tracked causes of death of 33,000 employees, findings revealed extraordinary excess causes of death, stated epidemiologist Richard Clapp. Records of cancer, from melanoma, to non-hodgkin’s lymphoma, to breast cancer incidences ranged as high as fourfold greater than should be expected. But the businesses fervently denied connection of these mortalities with their workers’ exposure to chemicals used in their factories. “IBM literally tried to prevent the results of the mortality analysis from ever seeing the light of day,” says Clapp, and the judge allowed the evidence to be dropped in the case.

So they were winning in the courts. At least, they were as had been depicted in the news. But outside of the limelight, there were more than hundreds of similar lawsuits of claims by workers that never went to trial and instead were offered settlements. IBM didn’t respond to an interview request by the filmmaker.

Once the toxic chemicals are used in making the components, they are disposed of as hazardous waste. “Solvents that the electronics industry used in production in Silicon Valley in the 70s and 80s are now in the groundwater,” says Ann Blake, an environmental and public health consultant. She likened the release of these chemicals to a drop of ink in a bathtub. “Once it spreads,” she says, “it’s very difficult to get back.” And contaminated groundwater, while out of sight, is not out of body. Miscarriages and birth defects started to appear with higher frequency in a Silicon Valley neighborhood with heavily contaminated drinking water.

As more and more exposure-related incidents as a result of groundwater contamination arose in the Silicon Valley area, some folks got fed up enough to act. This led to the formation of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, which petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to step in and use their authority under their Superfund program to intervene and influence legislation around informing the community of dangerous chemicals nearby and require cleanup actions by companies responsible for said contamination. With the support provided by the EPA, IT companies across the valley became Superfund sites.

“Santa Clara county, the heart of Silicon Valley, has 23 Superfund sites–more than any other county in the United States.”

But cleanup of superfund sites is an expensive and therefore drawn-out process. Meanwhile, low-income neighborhoods in the area have no idea of the toxic plume in the groundwater slowly seeping up beneath them. “This is so complicated, the devastation is so enormous,” says Ted Smith, “that we’re really talking centuries of cleanup, not just years or decades.”

To avoid regulations and to get the government off their back, the IT industry moved overseas. By outsourcing, companies like Apple could make vastly unreasonable manufacturing demands on contractors. China made it possible for them to do this. Thanks to the degrees of separation lent by contracting out their work, says Scott Nova of Workers Rights Consortium, “Apple doesn’t have to worry about what it means to workers when they insist on a tripling of the pace of iPhone production.”

The workers come in from the Chinese countryside, they’re poor and willingly work overtime just to save what amounts to a negligible sum. But for them, it’s a matter of survival and they’ll do whatever it takes.

“Workers’ pay is so low that labor makes up barely 1% of an iPhone’s cost.”

By sneaking in a camera to one factory in China, workers captured film of the difficulties endured by employees: constant labor, excessively long hours, lack of breaks, and exhaustion, leading to mistakes and mishaps that bring the wrath of bosses down upon them. Working conditions are so poor that tragedy is a common occurrence, from high rates of suicide by over-pressured workers to chemical explosions due to lack of workplace safety standards. When injuries take place, the suffering workers realize all too soon that, according to their employers, the product is more important than they are.

“How often do you upgrade?”

Supply and demand carries heavy implications in this industry. The average person interviewed on the street claims to upgrade their phone every six months to two years, depending on the quality of the device. The film takes a turn back stateside and we’re brought to New York where we are introduced to Kyle Wiens, co-founder of iFixit, who walks us through the disassemblage of an iPhone 5. He points out how Apple iPhones build the battery into the phone and use proprietary screws – which are tamper-resistant, meaning only Apple can unscrew them – “In an attempt to limit the lifespan of the phone to about 18 months,” says Weins, “Which is around the time that they have a new phone and they want you to buy a new one anyway.”

iFixit is a company that wants to show people how to repair their own devices, providing guides, along with tools and parts to allow them to do so. He describes his company as “reluctant capitalists”. “We get excited selling screwdrivers because we’re selling people a capability where they’re able to do something that they wouldn’t have otherwise.” And by giving people the tools and skillset to do this, they’re helping avoid reduce the amount of raw materials that go into the maintaining the constant output of these devices as they constantly need to be replaced.

“Over 500 pounds of material go into making an eight-ounce cell phone.”  

With iFixit, they’re breaking the barriers put up by manufacturers who have conditioned us to remain out of the loop: “Don’t worry about the details. We make this product, you just use it. When it stops working, you go buy a new one,” says Wiens. We learn that 1.6 billion cell phones were manufactured globally in 2014. Over time, the folks at iFixit came to realize the enormous environmental cost to this constant output.

In visiting several manufacturing companies in China, iFixit co-founder Luke Soules discovers congealed acid leaks outside of the machines in one, strongly portraying the negligible concern over any kind of environmental standards. Factories line the dangerously polluted Maozhou River and, from one worker’s viewpoint, we hear that “that is just the price you had to pay for the last 30 years of development,”– a cost that will be incurred for generations far into the future. In an interview with a factory worker who asked to remain anonymous, we learn that the boss of the water treatment center he worked for ran tap water through the waste pipes before a scheduled inspection from the environmental bureau. “A lot of factories do this,” he states. The wastewater flows straight into the river, and for Americans buying their products on the entire other side of the globe, it’s out of sight out of mind.

As one of the first projects of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, director Ma Jun developed a national water pollution database, providing access to IT factory records to the public to allow them to determine who should be held responsible for the devastating pollution situation China faces. More than 110,000 records of violations were revealed. Sadly, environmental litigation is quite difficult: The cost of violation is actually lower than the cost of compliance, says Jun. “Many would rather pay fines, year after year, without ever really addressing the problems.”

Out of all the IT brands questioned as to whether any of these violators were suppliers for their company, only Apple refused to respond, stating that they had a long-term policy not to disclose their supply chain. “When your operation is having an impact on the health of other people,” says Jun, “You can’t say: I’ve made a policy, not to talk.”

Jun contacted Linda Greer, an environmental toxicologist with the Natural Resources Defense Council and they worked together to apply additional pressure to facilities within Apple’s supply chain. “But this isn’t just about Apple,” says Jun, “It’s about the IT industry.” Because they all share manufacturers and, without consideration for the environmental impacts that these supply chains carry, and without the health of the environment existing within the realm of their consideration much less enlisting any kind of priority, it’ll fall by the wayside.  

“Just one supplier can generate more than 100,000 tons of waste in just one year. How much of a time bomb are these industries going to create?” -Ma Jun

As we progress into final third of the film, we’re driven down the road of a pleasant, peaceful neighborhood in New York where a spill from an IBM plant in 1979 released thousands of gallons of a cancer-causing solvent called trichloroethylene which brought great suffering and death into this quiet neighborhood.

Despite having occurred more than a generation ago, chemicals from the spill are still filtering up into people’s homes.

“How many have to go before we start realizing that money is very insignificant when it comes to the bottom line in life, really,” says one mother, Toni Sherling who watched her son, suffering from –alongside with her husband, who still fights the disease today–go from 185 pounds to 70 pounds the day before he died. After a decade of lawsuits, a settlement between the 16 homes affected and IBM amounted to payments of less than $20,000 per plaintiff.

This film has a way of breaking the hard truths, giving you the reality of the situation to where you might be sitting there devastated, thinking, how can I possibly help change this? But then we’re introduced to entrepreneurs who are re-imagining the way electronic devices are made so as to avoid the vast amount of waste produced in the computer industry . A small, up and coming company called Iameco created a “sustainable, ecological, high performance computer, free from the harmful chemicals and heavy metals.” Made out of sustainably harvested wood, these computers last 7-10 years and home users can replace parts and repair them to achieve maximum lifespan.

We’re also awakened to the issue of our own devices that we don’t use anymore. When asked on the streets, many confess to either tossing old computers and phones into the trash, some admit that the device is lying in a drawer somewhere with the vague hope that they’ll be recycled or reused in some fashion in the future. The admission of not really knowing what to do with a device once the end of its lifespan has been reached is something that rings true in my ears, what about yours?

“As the industry grew and expanded, we realized that it was not only the production-related hazards that were a problem,” says Ted Smith, “it was what happened to these products as they became obsolete. We have to find ways of reusing our devices.”

We’re brought to a warehouse filled with every electronic device one could possibly conjure to mind, now long obsolete. “Of the more than 3 million tons of electronic waste generated in the US every year, probably 15% of that gets recycled,” says Darrin Magee, Professor of Environmental Geography at Hobart & William Smith Colleges, “And some percent of that gets recycled in a responsible fashion.” Women and men with screwdrivers and gloves take desktop computers, laptops and phones down to parts, separating them into various boxes. When it comes to throwing something “away”, Magee takes it upon himself, as an environmental geographer, to determine where “away” is. And what he has learned is that “away” is “here” for someone.

Sitting among mountains of garbage in a trash dump in Guiyu, China we see adults and even children rifling through the waste, searching for parts, women taking apart devices over high heat, taking part in what is known as e-waste dismantling, armed with simple cloth face masks against the toxic smoke and fumes. Local scientists testing lead and cadmium in children found levels to be significantly higher there than in other locations. With pollutants in such high concentrations in this area, it’s transferring to the land as well, with rice farmers finding their grain crops contaminated.

“Scientists estimate that 20% of China’s arable land is contaminated with toxic heavy metals.”

In wrapping up, Williams takes us a step away to look at the bigger picture. We watch a swirling tendrils of rust-red smoke pass over a map of the earth moving from China and across the Pacific to disperse across the United States. That “out of sight out of mind” mindset held by our big tech industries doesn’t take into account that the earth is all connected and that the release of these toxic pollutants, whether from China or here in our own home territory, it’s going into the air, something we all share. We are reminded that air pollution travels around the globe. “It’s getting lofted into the atmosphere and coming right back to us,” says UC San Diego Distinguished Chair in Atmospheric Chemistry, Kimberly Prather. In her work, Prather samples cloud droplets, measuring the chemical fingerprint of these atmospheric aerosol particles and tracing their travel routes above continents, measuring how they affect our climate. What happens if we push it too far? “We’ll start to see more of these extreme weather events,” she says. Reaching the tipping points is what scientists are most concerned about happening and we’re already seeing it in real time.

Director and producer Sue Williams, rejoins us at the end of the film to remind us that the problem is shared by all of us and, while steadily growing as the industry moves to new countries to find cheaper labor and lax governmental safeguards, we can influence it for the better. We can do this by demanding worker safety, greater environmental protections and health regulations. We can and must do this through our voices and our buying power.

“The digital revolution has improved our lives in so many ways,” says Williams, “We need to make sure it doesn’t rob us of our health and our planet.”  


To view the film and find information on upcoming screenings as well as tips and solutions for the growing environmental, workers’ rights and e-waste problems, visit


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