Worker Profile
Trade Secrets

Ray Reynolds

“Many, many nights, we were walking through vapor clouds, and you could see it. You know how a hot road looks down a long straight? Well, that’s exactly what it looks like: wavy. We would complain about it, and they would pacify us by saying, there's no long- term problem. You might have an immediate reaction like nausea, but that's only normal. Don't worry about it.”

Ray Reynolds was 35 years old when his symptoms began – intestinal bleeding then followed by blackouts and memory loss – frightening indications that there might be progressive nerve damage. A physician finally diagnosed toxic neuropathy, a disease likely related to exposures to chemicals. Now, at age 43, Reynolds does not know how long he has to live. Too little is known about what is apparently killing him.

“I've always respected authority, and I was gullible and naive. When the people – that was their job to know if you were safe or not – would tell me that I was safe, I took it for granted that I was safe.”

Ray Reynolds worked for a chemical plant in Lake Charles, Louisiana. It was a good paying job as he and his wife, Denise, were raising their three children. Then ten years ago, he was named a member of the health and safety committee of his labor union.

“When anyone died inside the local union, my job was to bring them a Bible and a check from the union. And we would do that within the first 24 hours, so the widow and the family would have some money to live on until the insurance would come in. And I started seeing people getting sick and people dying.”

Those he saw dying were not only workers. His mother taught school in a small community across the street from the plant, a community where the water supply had been contaminated. People were sick there, too.

"Most of these people were still using shallow wells, had no idea that they were sitting on top of contaminants, no idea. They were still using these shallow wells to feed their livestock, to pour over their gardens, and the mortality rate in the – you're going to have to help me because my brain process – the babies born with deformities, illnesses, were horrifying, horrifying. But these people were the poorest of the poor. They had no ability to defend themselves. None."

Ray Reynolds helped create a hand-lettered wooden sign listing the names of some of the workers – as well as those in the community across the street – who had died.

"I want it up in marble. I wanted something there: a monument to these people that all they wanted to do was earn a living. And what's even worse than that was the citizens that lived nearby, they did nothing wrong. They've been there for 200 years in that settlement. Here comes an industry and moves there, and they die."

Bill Moyers in Reynolds' home
In the living room of his house a few miles from the chemical plant where he worked for 16 years, Ray Reynolds waits out the last days of his life.

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Ray Reynolds
"The time I have left, I'm going to spend hugging and loving my children and my family."

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