He wore a plain loincloth, and she wore a red sari.
They were both poor farmers who harvested okra and eggplant during the day and worked in industrial factories at night. They worked endlessly to ensure their children and grandchildren would have a much more comfortable life than they could ever imagine.
My grandparents only hoped for the best for their family.
The day they moved to America, my father tells me, was the happiest he had ever seen his parents. They knew that in America, their family wouldn’t have to face grueling work conditions that didn’t lead to success.
They knew the back-breaking labor and risk of developing melanoma from working hours under the hot, Indian sun and the lung cancer risks from working endlessly in unsanitary and detrimental conditions in the factories would only be their nightmare and not of their children.
Unfortunately, they were wrong.
Exposure to Deadly Asbestos at Work
My eldest uncle on my dad’s side moved to the U.S. with my parents and grandparents in the early 1980s. He quickly began working in a large technological factory to ensure his children and family had a bright future.
He stood during 14-hour shifts, inspecting and meticulously sorting computer parts. But as he worked overtime to give his family a brighter future, he didn’t realize that electrical insulation lined with deadly asbestos hung over his head.
My grandparents tell me their son experienced severe lower back pain, and he was constantly tired. They say he lost unhealthy amounts of weight and developed a raspy, dry cough. The family, which didn’t know about the dangers of toxic asbestos, simply assured him hard work caused the pain.
Lack of Asbestos Awareness
They were unaware that 60 percent of people diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma experience lower back pain, side chest pain, shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, persistent coughing, fever, weight loss and fatigue.
Although 16 years had passed since my uncle left the factory, his family had no idea mesothelioma has a long latency period of 20 to 50 years after prolonged exposure to asbestos. My uncle had been inhaling asbestos fibers for years during his grueling shifts.
These fibers embedded themselves in the lining of his lungs, causing harmful inflammation of the pleura and tumors.
My family could not have imagined that despite the numerous labor laws, regulations and health protections, my uncle’s health would eventually collapse.
Asbestos, often called a ‘miracle fiber,’ was common in the industrialized world. It was used as insulation for electrical wiring, in roofing and flooring compounds, spray-on fire retardant coating for steel girders in buildings and for many other industrial or commercial purposes.
Asbestos Use Declined in the US
The deadly fiber has a long history of being incorporated into our daily lives.
And despite the toxic effects of asbestos, it is still not banned in the U.S. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans in 1991 unfortunately overturned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 1989 phaseout of asbestos-containing products.
After much needed awareness, asbestos use has declined significantly in the U.S.
However, many people across the nation are still in the dark about the dangers of asbestos. Thousands of homes, office buildings and private structures contain asbestos fibers.
Researchers estimate there are approximately 3,000 new mesothelioma diagnoses each year in the U.S.
Thousands remain at risk.
Symbol of Change and Inspiration
My uncle passed away last year, 21 years after working at that factory.
He inspired my family to be cautious about their health. He wanted us to know that we have the right to a healthy and happy lifestyle.
Despite his passing, he is a symbol of change. After his mesothelioma diagnosis, he raised thousands of dollars fundraising and took action against factories that still expose workers to hazardous conditions. He led and commanded local campaigns to ensure all workers and residents were aware of their surroundings and could make knowledgeable decisions.
My grandparents hoped their family would never live a nightmare. And my uncle inspired me to ensure no one has to either.
Kishan Patel is a student at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the first-place winner of The Mesothelioma Center Scholarship Essay Contest for Fall 2015.