MENDOTA -- Recently, my friend Eddie Valencia, 27, mentioned a tightness in his chest. Eddie does not have asthma or other respiratory problems. But he was pretty sure he knew what was causing his symptoms. "It could have been the four and a half hours I spent with two other guys from my work, cleaning out a tank with chlorine with nothing more than gloves in the form of protective gear."
I advised Eddie of the potential long-term effects of chlorine exposure and told him to contact Poison Control. Embarrassed, he wondered if he should go to the hospital. But he worried about what his supervisors would do if they found out he went to the ER for treatment of a work related symptom. "I don't want to go," Eddie said. "They're going to try to fire me, watch."
Eddie finally decided to go to the company’s recommended physician. “He used the stethoscope and did a little blood work and told me everything seemed fine,” Valencia said. “I asked if I needed an X-ray done and the doc said it wouldn’t be necessary. But, then I told him that I read it in our company’s MSDS [Material Safety Data Sheet] that too much exposure to this chemical could lead to tissue damage of the lungs." At that point, the doctor scheduled Eddie for an X-ray.
Eddie left the doctor’s office with a lack of confidence in the visit, but returned to work nonetheless.
I've seen this other times, with other people I know in Mendota. So often do employees allow themselves to be put in uncomfortable and even dangerous situations in order to get a job done. Holding on to stable work is crucial for residents of Mendota. Unemployment is so high here that a Fresno Bee article labeled Mendota the "unemployment capital of California."
By now, Eddie's X-ray had come back showing swelling and irritation. Eddie says the physician he had seen, the one recommended by his employer, advised him the problems would go away. They didn't.
About three weeks after the initial chlorine exposure, Eddie was working the night shift when he started feeling nauseated and then vomited blood. Eddie says he finished his shift for fear of being criticized by management. He drove to the nearest emergency room with his wife. The ER doctor told him he had an irritation in his gastro-intestinal tract.
Eddie, now worried, decided to seek a second opinion about the effects of the chlorine exposure. This second physician diagnosed esophageal irritation, bleeding ulcers due to chemical exposure and toxicity to the liver. Eddie had to miss work in order to see this doctor. The next day he was fired, for having missed work.
“It doesn’t feel right what they did,” said Eddie. "I have a wife and two kids to support. Now I have no job because someone at the company thinks I’m making this all up."
Eddie has been seeking employment since he was laid off, but no luck so far.
Since he is considering legal action, he is reluctant to name the company he worked for, an international processor of agricultural products.