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Health Concerns And Highway Expansion Converge In Boulder City

Two UNLV scientists told KNPR’s State of Nevada that state health officials have tried to suppress an investigation into the potential hazards of asbestos trapped in rock in the southern Nevada landscape.

Asbestos is a fiber that can damage lungs and is a known carcinogen.

Rodney Metcalf and Brenda Buck with UNLV’s Department of Geoscience have found asbestos in elevated concentrations in soil samples taken near Boulder City.

Desert Companion: Waiting to Inhale

This is a geologic hazard, and unless people know about it they can’t mitigate the risk.

The question is: how much asbestos is out there? It’s not just an academic concern. When the state starts building the Boulder City Bypass and Interstate 11 between Las Vegas and Phoenix, Metcalf and Buck are concerned that airborne asbestos could put construction workers and nearby residents at risk.

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Metcalf and Buck have found naturally occurring deposits of asbestos in Southern Nevada where the interstate construction project is slated to take place.

Buck said when asbestos gets into the lungs, it causes a whole host of diseases.

“All it takes is some wind,” Buck said. “Any kind of disturbances to those fragile desert surfaces will create dust and the fibers become airborne.”

Their work led them to wonder whether incidences of asbestos-related illnesses, like mesothelioma, had increased in the area. Mesothelioma is an indicator of asbestos because people only get it from exposure to the mineral.

Working with an epidemiologist from the University of Hawai'i, Buck and Metcalf prepared a report that pointed to elevated incidences of mesothelioma cases in the region.

When the report was presented to the Department of Health and Human Services, state health officials moved to suppress its publication. The state of Nevada and the Department of Health were unhappy, to say the least.

The state ordered Francine Baumann, the University of Hawai'i epidemiologist who authored the study, to withdraw a presentation of her findings, and sent her a cease and desist order, preventing her from using data from the state’s database.

According to UNLV Geoscientist Brenda Buck, that happened two years ago. Buck and Metcalf had to start their research over, using information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They found the same concerns.

“There are a greater percentage of young people in Southern Nevada, in Clark and Nye counties, that have mesothelioma,” Buck said.

Both Buck and Metcalf believe Nevada should participate in an ongoing study.

The state has released a fact sheet that says Nevada does not have unusual rates of mesothelioma. State health representatives were not available to join KNPR’s State of Nevada to discuss the topic.

But in a New York Times article, the state’s epidemiologist Dr. Ihsan Azzam called Buck and Metcalf’s work tantamount to “scaremongering” and said, “You just don’t scare the hell out of people this way.”

“This is a geologic hazard, and unless people know about it they can’t mitigate the risk,” Metcalf said.

Metcalf says this all becomes a bigger problem as the state begins its work on the Boulder City Bypass.

“When they’re out there building, they’re going to release this dust into the air and people in Boulder City will be exposed as this stuff moves downwind,” Metcalf said.

The Occupation, Safety and Health Administration has rules for workers, but Metcalf said those rules reduce risk but won’t make the work area “safe.”

Learning from Libby, Montana

One community that has gone through decades of trials and tribulations of asbestos-related illness is the town of Libby, in northwest Montana, where W.R. Grace & Co. mined vermiculite for decades. The mining operations exposed town residents to elevated levels of asbestos.

Hundreds of residents died from asbestos-related diseases; thousands have had to live with lung diseases.

Gayla Benefield’s mother, father and husband all died of illnesses connected to asbestos exposure.

She fought to get financial restitution for Libby residents for years.

She told KNPR’s State of Nevada that her biggest concern for Nevadans are the people who will be working on the project near Boulder City.

“They need to be protected,” Benefield said. “They need to have a change room. They cannot bring this particulate back to their homes.”

But Benefield added that the best course of action would be to leave ground with concentrations of asbestos undisturbed.

Benefield said people aren’t afraid of the substance because they can’t see it and it doesn’t make people immediately sick.

While a southern Nevada road construction project is a different scenario than the historic vermiculite mining in Libby, Geoscientist Brenda Buck said the amount of asbestos found in the desert, during a wet summer, is actually more than what was found in the small Montana town.

Both scientists say there’s still more research and science to be done to assess the risks, and decide what mitigating action should be taken.

“Let’s work together for the citizens of Nevada,” Buck said.

When asked whether the state was deliberately ignoring science, Metcalf gave a straightforward answer.

“It’s hard to believe they’re not.” Metcalf said. 

Copyright 2015 KNPR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.knpr.org/.

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