Ted Smith

Connecting Environment to Health

Recorded: July 28, 2012

Who exposed the dirty secrets of the electronic industry? Ted Smith speaks with Huey Johnson about why he started the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

Known as the first major environmental reformer of the electronics industry, Ted Smith is an attorney who began his career in labor law and workers rights. He became well known as a pioneer attorney in environmental justice cases. As a young father, Ted learned about toxics and their impacts on drinking water supply through his work in labor law and followed some of the large electronics companies that were starting up in the Santa Clara Valley in California, an area now known as ‘Silicon Valley.’ Mr. Smith is the founder and former executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, co-founder of the International Campaign for Responsible Technology, and chair of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition steering committee. Mr. Smith has won much recognition for his environmental leadership and in 2006 he co-edited the book: Challenging the Chip: Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry.

Ted Smith: For about ten years I was a struggling lawyer, decided I didn’t really like doing that so I formed a non-profit and for about 25 years, we addressed the issues of the rapid development of electronics industry here in Silicon Valley. I remember when we formed the Toxics coalition and it was back in 1982, it was following the discovery of ground water contamination in San Jose and at that point, it just seemed like this has gone too far. I’d known about some of the toxics problems from my wife who is a lawyer who was representing people who got sick on the job and she would come home and talk about it all the time. But I didn’t really get involved myself until the chemicals spilled out of the workplace and got into the drinking water supply and families started having children with birth defects and it was at a time when we were trying to have children, so it was very important to me. But I remember trying to organize a very broad based coalition because I knew that if we were going to be serious about challenging the power and the authority of this industry that was growing up here, which was enormously successful, even by 1982, that we had to have a very broad and very deep coalition. So we tried to reach everybody we could think of and our initial press conference I was quoted in one of the papers as saying “we’re talking about things as American as apple pie.” And it really was, I mean that’s I think what was the kernel of what it was that we set out to do because we thought that by focusing on public health and by focusing on people’s real issues and concerns that we could get people to care about the environment. It was at a time when the electronics industry was known as the clean industry. They got away with that because it didn’t have the belching smoke stacks as the steel industry or the coal industry did. What they didn’t tell people is it was a chemical handling industry and so there were, by the time people finally got to the point where they understood the hazards, it had already built many, many factories here. There were thousands of people working in it. They had been the engine for the tremendous development here. I remember talking to the old timers who would, you know; wistfully remember the value of heart’s delight, which is what this place was called before it became Silicon Valley.

Huey Johnson: I recall first noticing you; you seemed being seen as a radical.

Ted Smith: Yeah.

Huey Johnson: And over time, you have grown into social respectability. And the evolution it would be helpful to others, young people for instance. I can say dealing with a coal company or a logging company sometimes can be much different and you’ve gone through some of these things and survived it and succeeded. It would be useful to get lessons you may have had that could be useful to others.

Ted Smith: Well, there’s no doubt that part of my motivation as I said was based on anger and you know anger can be a motivating force but it also can be a destructive force. And I think that when I was younger, I thrived on the motivation that came, the adrenaline that came from it you know, righteous indignation and I found that that was effective at times. But I did not, I was not sufficiently aware of the hazards in terms of the way it turned some people off and also the way it affected me. I mean running around being an angry person all the time is not very good for your own health, much less the health of your colleagues. As we begin to have more success and as more people begin to pay attention, I think that there was an increasing sense of maybe responsibility that came with that. It wasn’t enough to just be ranting at the, howling at the winds you know. If you can connect your concern to people’s own health and particularly if you can connect it to their own children’s health, then they pay attention. And I think that’s really the challenge that we all have is how do you get people to pay attention to this stuff? Because people are so busy, people are so stressed and particularly today with the economy the way it is, to try to get people to not only pay attention but to take action [00:04:33] because we know that you know, this is another lesson from early on. It’s true that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. It is true that you can change city hall if you mobilize people. But you have to be able to demonstrate that you can mobilize people. One person out there with a picket sign doesn’t do anything, but if you can turn out several hundred people consistently for city hall hearings or county board of supervisor hearings when there’s an issue on the agenda that is going to affect people’s lives, then you sometimes can make change. But that’s our job I think as activists is, is to make things visible.