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Asbestos Fibers Around Lake Mead Make Mice Sick, Study Says

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NPR

Close up look at asbestos fibers

The question about whether asbestos found in rocks in the Boulder City area has adverse health effects got closer to being answered.

And the answer is… likely yes, but it needs a lot more study.

A new paper by a researcher at Montana State University, in conjunction with two researchers at UNLV, tested the impact of exposure to low doses of asbestos fibers on mice – some fibers from Lake Mead and some from Libby, Montana, a town which has been virtually poisoned with asbestos by an old vermiculite mine.

The mice exposed to the asbestos developed autoimmune diseases, lead author Dr. Jean Pfau said. Autoimmune diseases connected to asbestos exposure in humans include lupus, scleroderma and rheumatoid arthritis.

Pfau said the study refutes the Nevada Department of Health's assertion that the doses of asbestos are so small that they have no impact. She said researchers exposed the mice to the lowest dose possible and the mice still became sick.

The study also found that the kinds of asbestos found in Southern Nevada is similar to the kind of asbestos fibers found in Libby. 

The asbestos found in Southern Nevada and in Montana is different than the kind used commercially for building materials.

“That is one of the big findings we have had over the past couple of decades is that there is a huge difference in the health outcomes of commercial asbestos and these needle-like fibers that we’re finding in the rocks,” Pfau said.

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She said the asbestos used for commercial purposes is usually associated with cancers like mesothelioma and the asbestos fibers found in the rocks near Boulder City and Lake Mead are linked to scar tissue developing between the lungs and the chest wall along with autoimmune diseases.

Those differences make it very difficult to track down the asbestos impact on people. Mesothelioma is a rare disease. Autoimmune diseases are common and are linked to several different causes, Pfau said.

While the commercial asbestos exposure that most people are familiar with came from people working with the fibers, the exposure in Southern Nevada could be coming from wind and water.

“When they’re in the rock, they’re sold. They’re not going to get into air unless you do something to that rock to pry those minerals loose," said Dr. Brenda Buck. She's one of the researchers from UNLV who discovered the concentrations of asbestos in rocks near Boulder City.

While it seems like the easy solution would be not to disturb the ground where the rocks are, Buck pointed out that rocks are constantly eroding and could be sending asbestos fibers into the air through the wind.

She also said something like driving an ATV through the desert could disturb asbestos fibers.

“You are possibly breathing them in if you are disturbing a soil that has asbestos in it”

Pfau agreed. She said digging into the soil or breaking up rocks can put the potentially dangerous fibers into the air.

“The thing is that these fibers are so tiny that you can’t see them when they’re in the air,” she said, “You don’t know if you’re breathing them or not unless we actually measure the air.”

Pfau and Buck believe more testing of the area is needed to see how much is in the air.

“We need to find out how much people are breathing. How much they are breathing because of different activities they do,” Pfau said.

They also want doctors and patients with autoimmune diseases to step forward. Finding a possible link may not help patients who currently have some of the diseases associated with exposure, but it could help in the future.

“That’s why this study I think is important is in bringing attention to this and awareness so that physicians start asking those questions,” Pfau said. 

 

Guests

Dr. Jean Pfau, researcher, Montana State University, Microbiology and Immunology; Dr. Brenda Buck, researcher, UNLV, Dept of Geoscience