(Pictured on right: My grandfather, Diego Batista Martinez, on one of his beloved ships. He died of Mesothelioma in April 2005 after years of exposure to asbestos in the shipyards.)
Every time I travel out east to visit my parents and grandmother I always think of my grandfather. Growing up, he was a second father to me, always present and supportive in every way. I will never forget the way he delighted in playing with my son, his first great grandson.
He never got to meet my four-year-old daughter as he died six years ago of lung cancer.
When I tell people this, they immediately assume that he smoked. No he did not. This was a man who took care of himself. He made sure to clock in his eight hours of sleep a night, eat healthy, watch his weight and even subscribed to a health and fitness magazine. In his late 70s, he was active, his olive skin hardly had any wrinkles, and his black hair was peppered only at the temples.
But then he was diagnosed with Mesothelioma, lung cancer due to asbestos that he was exposed to in the shipyards and manufacturing plants where he worked.
I would not wish this disease on anyone. He died in hospice care at my parents’ home, choking on his own blood. He spent the last few months of his life on an oxygen tank, which he wheeled around, as his breathing became labored.
Asbestos, by the way, is used to prevent fires. Many workplaces, including schools, have attempted to phase out asbestos due to the number of Mesothelioma cases in the 1970s and in recent years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tried to ban it in 1989, but was overruled in court. Today workplaces and consumer products can still legally contain trace amounts of asbestos.
For me, this is outrageous and concerning. But as I have learned in recent years there are a host of other carcinogenic, fire-fighting chemicals to worry about: toxic and untested flame retardants.
The Green Science Policy Institute, which is headed by Arlene Blum, the scientist whose work contributed to the phasing out of a cancer-causing flame retardant in children’s pajamas in the 1970s, just uncovered some disturbing research. Her organization helped collect samples of the foam from 100 baby products, including changing table pads, nursing pillows and car seats. Researchers, lead by Heather Stapleton of Duke University, found that 36% of them contained the same chlorinated tris removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970s. A whopping 80% of the products contained toxic or untested flame retardants.
"I am always careful to protect my son," Holly S. Lohuis, a marine biologist whose son had been biomonitored for toxic chemicals, said in a released statement. "I am heartbroken that at age four his levels of flame retardants are like those of an industrial worker."
For Latino families, the results of this study are especially discouraging. Not only are our families exposed to toxic chemicals in the workplace, but according to this study, Mexican American schoolchildren in California have seven times the flame retardant level compared to children in Mexico. And just to show you how vulnerable their little bodies are, these same children had three times the level of flame retardants as their mothers.
This is disturbing as animal studies have linked flame retardants to cancer, neurological and reproductive disorders. The flame retardants easily leach onto dust, pet hair, and the crumbling foam of old products -- surely, I am not the only one who used second-hand baby products! -- making them easy to ingest by children.
What irks me most is these companies have managed to turn it around, claim their "fire safe" products are superior and even worth paying for. What they don't display is the hidden cost for our children, our babies, in terms of their health.
Also, most fire victims -- as many as 80% -- die due to smoke inhalation rather than the actual flames. So why don't we take a deep breath -- a deep breath of fresh air that is -- and take care of our lungs and that of our children. After witnessing our family’s exposure to the fire-fighting chemical, asbestos, I, for one, do not want to find out the longterm effect of toxic flame retardants in my children's bodies.
Elisa Batista, who co-publishes the MotherTalkers blog, is also a proud contributor to the MomsRising and Moms Clean Air Force blogs. She dedicates this post to her late abuelo, Diego Batista Martinez.