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On Verge Of A Boom, Boulder City Keenly Aware Of Asbestos

Boulder City residents continue to buzz about the potential health risks of asbestos in their community -- not the kind used as insulation in commercial construction, but the sort commonly found in the desert.

It’s a big issue in Boulder City because with the completion of the Interstate 11 bypass, and plans for an interstate link between Phoenix and Las Vegas, that area is primed for a housing and business boom.

That will mean digging up parts of the desert that have essentially laid dormant for eons.

Asbestos occurs naturally in several forms in Southern Nevada. Undisturbed, experts say it poses no health risk. But if it becomes airborne and is inhaled, it can lead to mesothelioma, a deadly lung disease.

Some academics at UNLV have been sounding warnings after the recent completion of the Interstate 11 bypass and the planned construction of hundreds of homes in the desert.

Longtime Nevada reporter John L. Smith has been listening to everyone and taken a keen interest in what’s going on.

“The fascinating thing about it is it continues to affect folks in Boulder City. It is something that they're still talking about. It's something that the city council and community have discussed and it's something that the local paper there is also is also writing about,” Smith said.

The UNLV report was controversial because Nevada state officials rebuffed the report and said there was very little danger. The problem Smith points out is that it has been studied for quite some time before the 2015 report came out in a peer-reviewed journal.

In addition to asbestos being found in the ground, the report also suggested an unofficial cluster of mesothelioma in the area. However, those numbers were challenged by another UNLV researcher. That researcher had a rebuttal letter published in the same journal questioning those statistics.

“The professor is not saying that there isn't an asbestos question to be answered. What he was saying is that the sample size and the simple math of it was too small a sample size to draw to draw such a large conclusion,” Smith said.

In addition to that, in other places where asbestos and mesothelioma have been problems and large lawsuits have been filed, like Libby, Montana, the industries were mining asbestos on purpose.

Also, because the risk was known, the workers followed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, guidelines during construction of the interstate in the area.

So, while a lot of questions remain about asbestos in the area, it’s current impact and potential impact, Smith says overall the discussion is positive.

“You've got an issue that needs to be on the table,” he said, “It needs to be discussed. In a wider net, when you're not just talking about asbestos in the soil, you're also talking about a Henderson for instance that has a long history of a chemical plant there. You're talking about the Three Kids Mine and any a remediation of soil out there. You're talking about environmental question marks in the community. In one case naturally occurring but in other cases really manmade.”

He said it is a quality of life issue and an issue of safety for future generations. 

From Desert Companion: Waiting to Inhale

John L. Smith, contributor

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.