In a large swath of desert near Boulder City, naturally occurring asbestos rests in the rocks and soil.
Though asbestos is in much of Nevada’s desert, what makes this finding troublesome is that it lies exactly where Nevada wants to build an interstate highway to Arizona.
Months ago, state health officials told KNPR’s State of Nevada they were not worried about the asbestos, which is a known carcinogen.
“The determination of the entire team is that usual precautions where ever there is naturally occurring asbestos would satisfy the risk for individuals,” Dr. Tracey Green told KNPR’s State of Nevada during an interview in February. Green is Nevada's Chief Medical Officer with the Department of Health and Human Services.
The officials said that during highway construction they will follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, which include watering down the earth to keep asbestos fibers from floating in the air and getting into the lungs of workers and residents.
But is it really that simple?
Award-winning television reporter George Knapp began a six-part serieson that asbestos issue Sunday. He told KNPR’s State of Nevada that the reality of desert living negates the idea of just watering the area down.
“We live in a desert. So what happens the day after you water down the dirt? It dries and it’s windy and it blows into the area,” Knapp said.
Brenda Buck is one of the researchers from UNLV’s Department of Geoscience who wrote the first report on the asbestos agrees and said the potentially dangerous fiber is in the air currently.
“There is two times the amount of asbestos in the area right now than what the EPA considers protective for health. That’s before construction,” Buck said.
However, Dr. Len Kriesler disagrees. Kriesler is the former medical director for the Nevada Operations office of the Department of Energy. He worked for several years at the Nevada Test Site.
“You wet down the area you’re going to be working in. You have atmospheric monitoring and you can do that from day to day,“ Kreisler said.
He also said that he has not seen one case of asbestosis in his entire time practicing medicine in southern Nevada. He said it is a rare disease that is very difficult to diagnosis and link to asbestos.
“My question is as anybody really reported any cases that were confirmed by pathology diagnosis from the Boulder City area. To my knowledge, the number is none,” Kriesler said.
During an interview in February, state health officials told KNPR’s State of Nevada that rates of a type of cancer connected to asbestos exposure, mesothelioma, were lower in Nevada.
“There were absolutely no significant differences. As a matter of fact our state has lower mesothelioma rates than 32 other states in the nation,” Dr. Ihsan Azzam said.
Azzam is the State Epidemiologist at Nevada's Department of Health and Human Services.
But George Knapp said that even OSHA itself doesn’t have a level of asbestos that is acceptable.
“There is going to be health consequences but the highway is valuable and they’ve decided to move forward,” Knapp said.
And Buck agrees.
“We’re breathing asbestos. There is a risk for health,” she said.
One of the biggest issues that Knapp, Buck and Metcalf have is how the state has handled the whole investigation.
Buck and Metcalf worked with Francine Baumann, an epidemiologist from the University of Hawai'i, to prepare 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 Baumann 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 Buck and Metcalf, they had to start their research over, using information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The information from the CDC confirmed their concerns.
It was that aspect of the story that drew Knapp to start his investigation. He’s astonished by how the state has rebuffed the issue of public information connected to the research.
“This is the most Orwellian-double-speak example in the history of my career in journalism, just a ‘Twilight Zone’ thing,” Knapp said. “This is public information. The Nevada Cancer Registry is public information managed by a public agency. It should be publicly available.“
Dr. Green told KNPR that Baumann broke the law when she shared the information with a third party before sending it to the state.
“We were responding to her behavior not to her information,” Green said.
Buck believes the state has been negligent.
“I think they’re definitely being negligent. I mean they have said there is no risk to the residents but we already know, like I said before, that we are breathing asbestos,” Buck said.
All three believe the highway project is going to move forward, the question is will the efforts to mitigate workers’ exposure work and what will the health impact be for the rest of southern Nevada.
“To pretend that that’s enough, that there is no risk to the rest of us by blasting and bulldozing through that area is ridiculous,” Knapp said.
“The bigger picture here are the residence and people who have lived here for decades how much asbestos have they already breathed in and what’s going to happen in the future,” Buck said.
For Buck and Metcalf, they want more data. They don’t believe they can give an accurate evaluation of the risk of exposure without more research.
George Knapp, reporter, KLAS-TV Channel 8; Rodney V. Metcalf, department of geoscience, UNLV; Brenda Buck, professor department of geoscience, UNLV; Dr. Len Kreisler;
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