Federica Armstrong discovered when she moved to Palo Alto, Calif., that Silicon Valley is not what it seems.

The world’s capital of tech innovation prefers to keep its superlatives, good and bad, under wraps. Along its Prius-choked roads, it looks like Anywhere, U.S.A.: single-family-home suburbs south of San Francisco, bordered by chain stores, auto dealerships and corporate parks — lots of beige, boxy corporate parks.

Inside these plain vanilla buildings, where C.E.O.s in hoodies and jeans stockpile more money than the G.D.P. of developing countries, newly minted techies complain that “S.V.,” the world’s largest wealth generator, is too expensive and that its exhausting work culture is toxic.

So, too, is the land beneath their feet.

From its origins as a manufacturer of silicon chips and semiconductors, Santa Clara County is riddled with 23 toxic Superfund sites, more than any county in the country. This was news to Ms. Armstrong, who lives a mile from one of the sites. Ms. Armstrong, a freelance photographer, moved to Silicon Valley eight years ago not because of tech but in spite of it — she and her husband had followed his career in agribusiness from Malaysia to the Netherlands and Japan. She could ignore the world of start-ups — until she couldn’t.

“Most people I talked to in the community seemed unaware of their presence,” she said. “Often, even the notion of Superfund sites is foreign to many people. We are used to taking for granted the safety of the environment we inhabit. I feel the need to pay more attention to it.””

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