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Willits STILL Needs a Medical Monitoring Clinic
Barbara Kanegsberg, SQRC

Willits is a small town in a relatively isolated geographical area in Northern California. A single major industry utilizing many organic and inorganic chemicals, operated for decades in Willits. There has been concern on the part of individuals with expertise in occupational and environmental medicine about the impact of these industrial activities. Willits provides an opportune locale for a medical monitoring clinic that would elucidate the long-term effects (physical and psychological) of multiple chemicals on workers and community members. In the first issue of “Green Files,” we promised to update you about Willits, CA, the Abex/Remco facility, and progress on a medical monitoring clinic to assess exposure of workers and community members to chemicals.

After 10 years of effort, the bottom line is that the Willits area still does not have a medical monitoring clinic; and the Willits area still needs a medical monitoring clinic.

Why is such monitoring important to you? Human activity involves risk. Manufacturing inevitably involves multiple chemicals and processes; and manufacturing processes will inevitably increase in complexity. From activities of the past we learn to avoid harmful and costly scenarios in the future. The findings of a medical monitoring clinic can potentially help you if you are a community member that might be impacted by industry, a worker who uses chemicals, the manager of a manufacturing plant, a healthcare professional, an industrial hygienist, a regulatory professional, or a concerned citizen.

Recently, Pepsico (the current owners of the Abex/Remco facility) made a donation in support of a new hospital in Willits (1). The donation is, of course, laudable. However, the issue of helping individuals potentially impacted by Abex/Remco and without appropriate access to medical monitoring remains. These are individuals with concerns about exposure to a mixture of heavy metals, volatiles, hydrocarbons, and other organic chemicals.

While emphasizing the hexavalent chromium issue, part of a voluminous report (2) issued by the California Department of Health Services indicates the need for a medical evaluation program:

On March 29, 2006, CDHS in collaboration with Robert Harrison, M.D., professor of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University California of San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center convened a workshop of clinicians, with expertise in occupational and environmental medicine to discuss medical monitoring for Willits residents. The workshop included a consultant (Robert Blink) hired by the City of Willits. There was consensus by the group of experts that outreach and some form of medical evaluation program is appropriate for the Willits community.

While there is still no clinic, a group of concerned citizens remains undeterred. The group appears to have found physical space for a clinic; and they are attempting to work with institutions, notably the University of California, San Francisco, that might provide expert clinicians to periodically come to Willits and expert researchers who will dispassionately evaluate the findings and report the results.

The “Expert Panel Report,” based on a workshop held at UCSF in 2006, includes recommendations for medical monitoring for Willits. The report is also available online (3). Those of you in manufacturing will notice that in the context of the report, VOC (volatile organic compound) means any volatile organic, carbon-containing material and includes compounds that are considered negligibly reactive or exempt at the Federal level. You may also notice that it is considered difficult to assess the health impacts of VOC’s on workers and on the community.

As a chemist who works with industry and with communities and as a concerned citizen, it is my opinion that a medical monitoring clinic for those who may be impacted by Abex/Remco will be compassionate to those directly involved and will provide valuable information to society. We remain concerned about regulating individual chemicals, but the reality of new, complex technology is that multiple chemicals must be employed. It is hoped that the findings of such a monitoring program provide needed information in developing paradigms for managing multiple chemicals and perhaps in determining situations where risks are relatively low.

If you have constructive ideas about medical monitoring for those potentially impacted by Abex/Remco or if would like additional information, please contact the Willits Community Advisory Committee (WCAC), Pamela Arlich (707) 459-4982 or Maria Brook (707) 459-4242.

(1) D. Kindler, “Groundbreaking this Month for Willits Hospital,” North Bay Business Journal, July 9, 2007

(2) CERCLUS No. CAD000097287, PUBLIC Health ASSESSMENT, “Evaluation of Exposures to Contaminants from the Former Abex/Remco Hydraulics Facility, Willits, Mendocino County, California,” Prepared by California Department of Health Services Under Cooperative Agreement with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.” (128 pages)

(3) “Abex/Remco Hydraulics Corporation, Willits - Public Health Activities”


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