The workers in semiconductor manufacturing plants can be exposed to various toxic substances. Among them, the arsenic used in the ion implantation process as arsine gas is one of the most significant problems. In this study, multiple regression analysis revealed that As3+, As5+, the sum of inorganic arsenic (As3++ As5+), and the sum of inorganic arsenic and MMA were higher in ion implantation PM engineers than in the non-exposed group.
Previous studies showed that PM engineers who handle the normal processes of the fabrication operation are exposed to arsenic levels that are substantially lower than the TLV of 10 μg/m3 if the operation is appropriately maintained by engineering controls such as exhaust ventilation, enclosure, and shielding of the operation equipment . However, the equipment, which is sealed during normal operations, is opened and disassembled by the PM engineers during the maintenance process; hence, they can be exposed to residual arsenic that adheres to the inner surfaces of the equipment [2, 18]. In a Taiwanese study that monitored arsenic exposure during the maintenance of an ion implanter, arsenic levels were very low in environmental samples, but were much higher in some wipe samples, used cleaning cloths, and gloves . The results indicated that arsenic intake via ingestion, rather than through inhalation, might play a significant role in the elevation of urinary arsenic levels of workers performing maintenance on an ion implanter .
In another Taiwanese study that monitored arsenic exposure in ion implanter PM engineers, the levels of total urinary inorganic arsenic metabolites in PM engineers were 1.7 g/L, 1.4 µg/L, 6.2 µg/L, 20.2 µg/L, 29.5 µg/L for As3,+, As5+, MMA, DMA, and total urinary inorganic arsenic metabolites, respectively. Further, both the concentration of MMA and its percentage of the total urinary inorganic arsenic metabolites were significantly higher in PM engineers than in the non-exposed group .
In the study of Hu et al. (2006) that evaluated the effects of arsenic exposure among semiconductor workers, the mean urinary concentrations of As3+, As5+, MMA, DMA, and total arsenic metabolites (the sum of As3+, As5+, MMA and DMA) were 2.19 g/L, 0.82 g/L, 3.86 g/L, 44.33 g/L, and 51.21 g/L for exposed workers, respectively, and exposed workers had significantly higher concentrations of MMA, DMA, and total arsenic metabolites than non-exposed workers . In the Taiwanese studies [17, 19], the levels of urinary arsenic metabolites of the exposed groups were similar to those of clean process PM engineers in our study.
In a British study that monitored concentrations of urinary arsenic compounds, the mean urinary concentrations of As3+, As5+, MMA, DMA, and total arsenic metabolites (sum of As3+, As5+, MMA, and DMA) were 0.6 µg/L, 0.2 µg/L, 0.7 µg/L, 4.9 µg/L, and 6.4 µg/L, respectively, for exposed workers in the semiconductor manufacturing industry . These levels were lower than that in our study.
In our study, the levels of urinary arsenic metabolites in clean process PM engineers were higher than those in ion implantation process PM engineers and the non-exposed group. In an experimental study conducted by Ungers et al. (1985), silicon wafers were found to emit inorganic arsenic following ion implantation. Data collected during this experiment demonstrated that arsenic is released over a 3.5-hour period following implantation and that the total amount of arsenic emitted may approach 6.0 g per 100 wafers processed within 4 hours after implantation . However, there is a lack of research evaluating arsenic exposure for clean process PM engineers.
Urinary arsenic is determined in a secondary confirmative test in special medical examinations in Korea, with the limit being 220 g/L . ACGIH recommends total inorganic arsenic metabolites should not exceed 35 g/L as the biological exposure limit (BEL) . An upper limit for speciated arsenic metabolites in the urine has not been established thus far in Korea. Our results show that the levels of total inorganic metabolites in 88% of clean process PM engineers exceeded the BEL set by ACGIH; further, the levels exceeded the BEL in 43% of the non-exposed group and 39% of the ion implantation PM engineers. Several office workers of the non-exposed group had levels that exceeded the BEL, which can be attributed to non-occupational environmental factors or diet, especially seafood intake. The average seafood intake is much higher in Asian countries such as Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, than in Europe or the United States . Likewise, the concentration of urinary arsenic in the Asian population is higher than in Western countries [22, 23]. Because of the apparent correlation between seafood intake and arsenic exposure, the BEL should be applied in a conservative manner and may not be suitable to assess health risks. A study of the general population in Japan showed that the median value of urinary inorganic arsenic metabolites (the sum of As3+, As5+, MMA, and DMA) was 54 g/L, which exceeded the BEL . It is notable that certain arsenic metabolites can be found even in the general population in the absence of occupational arsenic exposure. Similar research results in Korea revealed that the average concentration of urinary arsenic in the general population was 118 μg/g creatinine , which is comparable to the level of 149 μg/g creatinine in Japanese study ; both values are substantially higher than the average urinary arsenic concentration in the general population of the United States, which was 8.30 μg/L or 8.24 μg/g creatinine .
Shellfish are rich in DMA, which when ingested is not metabolized, but directly excreted in the urine . Arsenosugars, which can be found in seaweed, mussels, shellfish, and oysters, is metabolized to DMA in the human body and can be excreted in the urine . One study demonstrated increased total urinary inorganic arsenic metabolites, especially DMA, in a group of volunteers after consuming seaweed. Thus, urinary DMA does not represent occupational exposure to arsenic, but is a marker of seafood intake . Hakala et al. (1995) performed a study in copper smelter workers to assess occupational arsenic exposure; they showed that urinary inorganic arsenic (As3+, As5) is more useful for assessing occupational exposure to arsenic, rather than total urinary inorganic arsenic metabolites . In this study, the concentration of inorganic arsenic (As3+, As5) was significantly different between groups. Because seafood consumption in Asian countries is higher than in Western countries, Hata et al. (1995), on the basis of their findings in the general population in Japan, recommended excluding DMA when assessing occupational exposure to arsenic . We analyzed the urinary inorganic arsenic metabolites As3+, As5+, and MMA (excluding DMA), and found a significant difference between the exposed and the non-exposed groups. The DMA concentration, however, was not significantly different between groups, even after adjusting for confounders such as smoking and seafood intake.
This study has certain limitations. First, the study results are based on a single urine sample from each participant; hence, we could not establish the reproducibility and accuracy of the measurements. A second limitation concerns control of the seafood intake. To exclude the arsenic intake from seafood, we strongly recommended participants to consume seafood for at least 2 days, but it was not strictly followed. This might have affected the interpretation of the levels of DMA. Finally, the non-exposed group should have been selected from the same community or workplace to control for environmental arsenic exposure (such as from water or air pollution), but we could not find suitable candidates among the workers’ colleagues.
This study aimed at assessing exposure to arsenic in semiconductor manufacturing workers, specifically in PM engineers of the clean process and the ion implantation process areas using urinary inorganic arsenic metabolite levels. Prior studies assessing arsenic exposure in the semiconductor industry focused mainly on ion implantation process workers, in whom the level is known to be negligible . In this study, however, urinary inorganic arsenic metabolites in clean process and ion implantation PM engineers were higher than in the non-exposed group, after adjustment for smoking and seafood intake. Urinary inorganic arsenic metabolites in clean process PM engineers were the highest, suggesting that clean process engineers are exposed to arsenic. Further studies to evaluate occupational arsenic exposure in semiconductor manufacturing, especially in clean process engineers, are warranted.