Remembering an unsung science hero

Back in the late 1960s, the term “environmental health” hadn’t yet fully entered the science lexicon. The cities and towns along the south end of San Francisco Bay may have been best known for earthquakes and aerospace.

Joseph LaDou didn’t christen the place Silicon Valley. But his early work on the health risks in the explosive growth of the computer industry may have made him the Steve Jobs of occupational health science in the Valley. LaDou passed away last November, but his legacy lives on through his groundbreaking research and advocacy of worker protection.

Uncovering the dirty downside of tech growth 

The famous clean rooms where circuit boards and microchips are made in a strictly dust- and dirt-free workplace hid a problem in plain sight. The solvents, gasses and metals deployed to make the rooms clean appeared to make workers ill. From his medical practice, LaDou observed and treated tech workers suffering from a battery of reproductive ills and cancers.

In 1982, Ladou embarked on a series of ventures that put him on a collision course with the tech industry, helping run a residency program at the University of California, San Francisco. There, he sharpened his skills as a trainer and mentor of some 3,000 healthcare professionals in the U.S. and abroad through his curriculum, Advances in Occupational and Environmental Medicine. In May 1984, LaDou published a breakthrough paper, “The Not-So-Clean Business of Making Chips.”

For the first time, American media saw that the explosive growth of tech and computing just might have a downside.

“Direct and fearless”

In taking on a growing and powerful industry in its own backyard, LaDou drew critics and admirers alike. “He spoke truth to power and was very direct and fearless,” former colleague Dr. Richard Jackson, a pediatrician and professor at the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Environmental Health News (EHN).

In 1992, LaDou also founded the peer-reviewed International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, serving in that capacity from 1992 to 2005.

The science from LaDou and others provided strong underpinning for the workers, activists, regulators and others struggling to clean up workplaces, water supplies and neighborhoods.

“He spoke truth to power and was very direct and fearless.” -Dr. Richard Jackson, University of California, Los Angeles

He also published a study of the global migration of toxic industries and another on asbestos in developing countries were said to have influenced the international debates on those issues.

Following his retirement, LaDou was Professor Emeritus of medicine at UCSF. He died in November 2023 at the age of 85 after a career of teaching, sleuthing and advocating. He is survived by his daughters, Ana and Marisa, two granddaughters and his sister, Leah.

Without the largely unsung work of Joe LaDou, it’s likely that he’s also survived by thousands of tech workers whose lives and health he protected.