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When I was working as an investigative reporter, I spent several years writing about environmental issues for Neighborhood America. One of the articles I wrote for them was entitled "Don't Breathe the Air", about the chemical poisoning of more than 5,000 people in Northern California when a Catacarb leak at the Unocal Refinery went on for 14 days without being detected.
This story was particularly horrific for me, since the man profiled in the article is an old friend of mine. I went on to write a film script based on the story with my business partner, Sandra Brandenburg, entitled FRUIT OF THE POISON TREE.
Don't Breathe the Air
Their names aren't really Ben and Jolene, and they don't live in a little town on the coast of Alaska. But their names can't be mentioned due to a settlement that kept them alive, and the little town could be anywhere there isn't much development.
Ben and Jolene have chemical poisoning. Caused in 1994 by a leak of the checmial Catacarb at the Unocal plant in Crockett, California -- a leak which went unchecked for sixteen days.
Jolene was given ten-to-fifteen years to live, which means her life expectancy could be less than forty. Ben's hair, raven-black in 1994, is now white. And neither of them can visit friends and relatives in California -- the air is too toxic for them to breathe. Jolene is permanently disabled; Ben abandoned his career with a Fortune 500 company to work for little more than minimum wage.
Their settlement from Unocal bought them four acres of land and a house, but non-disclosure was the price. If you think this kind of accident is a rare occurrence, consider this: Ben and Jolene were saved by the Response Team for the Chemically Injured, located in Atascadero, California. The team was founded in 1988 by Lynn Montandon, an L.V.N.
Telephone their offices at 805/461-3662 and you'll get instructions to leave a message and they will call back -- unless you're in an emergency situation, then two other numbers are offered, one of them Ms. Montandon's pager.
Chemical poisoning accidents in Northern California are so common a special team of doctors and nurses is needed to help the injured. In the Unocal accident of 1994, 10 tons of Catacarb was released into the air, poisoning the entire town of Crockett and several surrounding locations. It dissolved an entire parking lot.
California has stringent laws that provide six figure fines and five year prison sentences for violations of the clean air act, but many large corporations slip through loopholes. Unless the Environmental Protection Agency becomes involved, it is difficult for District Attorneys to prosecute corporations that retain a battery of lawyers.
That's where the RTCI (Response Team for the Chemically Injured) comes in. Following the Crockett incident, one of the worst chemical poisoning incidents in history, they conducted 'Good Neighbor Clinics' to assist the victims. They became so involved in the disaster that Dr. Jeffrey Anderson, the Medical Director, became poisoned himself and had to close his private practice. He has been replaced by Dr. Gunnar Heuser.
The RTCI has developed a number of products designed to help those exposed to chemical poisoning. Dietary supplements, cleaning cloths, charcoal masks, air filters, and something called Hygenaire, which kills mold and deodorizes.
Contra Costa County has one of the highest records of chemical poisoning incidents in the nation. Throughout California the RTCI has assisted in incidents including pesticide poisoning at San Luis Obispo county buildings; Methyl Bromide exposure in a strawberry field in Oxnard; metam sodium poisoning from a train derailment in Sacramento, where the biocide was dumped into a river and produced toxic gases; chemical leaks at a Unocal plant in Avila Beach; Sick Building Syndrome in schools; and groundwater contamination at a Lockheed plant in Burbank.
Currently, RTCI runs a clinic in Atascadero where people who have been chemically poisoned are treated. They conduct educational programs for patients, families and friends of the chemically injured. They monitor and respond to action taken by local, state and federal agencies regarding the indiscriminate use of chemicals. They can arrange for speakers to give lectures to physicians, health care providers and community groups. And they respond to chemical 'accidents' by sending individuals who are qualified in educating the victims about the chemical involved and how to deal with the injuries caused by exposure.
Their plans for the future include a fully equipped mobile unit which will enable them to provide immediate, effective treatment at an accident site; building their own 'safe community' where the chemically injured can detoxify and recuperate; and increasing in-service training to physicians and other medical personnel to help them recognize, properly diagnose, and treat chemical injury.
For more information about the Response Team and/or to make a donation, write or call: RTCI, 5932 Entrada Avenue, Atascadero, Ca 93422. 805/461-3662.