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Boulder City
Toxic Rocks in Boulder City

6 Sep 2015
King Elementary
The view of Martha King Elementary from the asbestos field - 1/10 of a mile away.


When we think of asbestos or mesothelioma we tend to think of men who have worked on ships or in construction that used asbestos for a building material. One celebrated case was actor Steve McQueen, who died young in 1981 from mesothelioma, having worked closely with asbestos as a teenaged Marine in the 1940s. Buildings constructed before World War II are regularly subjected to asbestos abatement before demolition, because the greatest danger comes from disturbing fibers previously lying untouched. But former Congressman Jim Bilbray, an attorney by occupation who never smoked or worked in construction, suffers from lung disease caused by asbestos - and he is not the only one with a suspicious illness. "I've hiked all around Boulder City and all over Southern Nevada," Bilbray said recently on George Knapp Reports on local Channel 8, CBS ( view the video, Asbestos in the Backyard, here.)

Last week residents of Boulder City were given a rude awakening: asbestos exists in the soil, occurring naturally. It exists not only in the routes for the new Interstate 11, it exists all over Boulder City, a mid-mountain town (elevation 2507, give or take) with a lot of wind blowing up off the desert. The exact extent, the exact details of the danger, are not yet fully determined, but they are enough to justify concern and a desire to know more. Every time the wind blows, it may well blow asbestos fibers from your yard into your home and into your lungs; every time you walk your dog you may both be at risk. Every time your children play outside at Martha King Elementary, your kids are possibly, perhaps probably, at risk. Even the grounds of the Old Boulder City Hospital, though untested, give the appearance of rocks with naturally occurring asbestos. But exactly how big is the risk? These were the questions pondered by a trio of scientists this past Tuesday (Sep.1) at the Boulder City Library. Speaking before a standing-room-only crowd of 100 concerned Boulder City residents, UNLV geologists Dr. Brenda Buck and Dr. Rod Metcalf, along with EPA toxicologist Dr. David Berry, presented enough data to worry anyone who pays attention.
the 3 dox
Left to right, Metcalf, Buck, Berry

Asbestos Ain't Just for Highways Any More

Previously Boulder City residents knew that asbestos had been found in the soil of the highway route, but we never knew it was in the dirt here in town. Dr. Buck and Dr. Metcalf found asbestos in the soil next to Martha King Elementary - only a block from where I live, along a path where I regularly walked my dog until I learned of this. I actually chose my neighborhood to use that trail! To follow up on their investigation I gathered a few sample rocks of my own,
asbestos rock asbestos rock
which you can see here. These are granites; the flecks of green are the suggestion of asbestos. If you see rocks like this, particularly the larger one, stay away. I showed them to Dr. Berry and his only comment was, "I hope you don't take those home with you." They also found asbestos in the Dry Lake Bed and at the end of Adams Boulevard. Tests at a local garden provider show asbestos in ornamental lawn gravel as well. Too bad we don't know which provider!

Meso the Tip of the Iceberg

As it turns out, mesothelioma is not the main health concern, it's merely the worst. A wide variety of non-cancer diseases are more likely to result from asbestos exposure - asbestosis, localized pleural thickening, diffuse pleural thickening, small interstitial and systemic auto immune diseases. Buck and Metcalf pointed out that they only sampled six spots in the Boulder City area, which leaves a lot of questions unanswered. The current work on Interstate 11, for instance, involves mining and blasting in the mountains with the highest concentration of asbestos. And the city of Henderson is already encouraging the building of thousands of new homes in one of the potentially dangerous areas.

How to Stay Safe

"They're doing the blasting at night," Buck said. "Keep your windows closed at night." This advice seemed to suck air out of the room, as people considered their desire to enjoy the almost-autumn evening air. "I already do all that", one man complained. "And when I get up the next morning everything's covered with dust. What else can I do?" That man expressed the concern of many, especially after the toxicology presentation.

How Unsafe is it?

Dr. David Berry, the EPA toxicologist, made a presentation about the results of research in three other locations he was familiar with, starting with the Libby, Montana mine where he has worked for almost a decade. The Libby miners and their families were exposed to every type of regulated asbestos, and quite a few unregulated ones as well. He has performed long-term longitudinal studies that make it clear: there are noticeable differences between illness caused by occupational versus recreational (NOA) exposure to asbestos. The clearest marker is that in occupational exposure, mostly men are exposed and become ill; in Libby the ratio is more than eight to one, male to female. A similar indicator is the percentage of cases for victims diagnosed under age 55, like former Metro police officer Doug Chasey, whose hobby used to be off-road biking around the Dry Lake Bed, one of the danger areas. In Southern Nevada the percentage is over eleven percent, which cannot be explained by occupational exposure along. And our male-to-female ratio for meso, which is closer to even, suggests women victims who were not exposed occupationally. Even more to the point, a child with mesothelioma is a clear indicator of a problem - and Boulder City has had at least one.

"Mesothelioma is not naturally occurring," Berry said. "Something causes it. Whenever we find a mesothelioma case we need to find out where the exposure came from." In a place like Boulder City that's not always easy. Plenty of people have moved here from other parts of the country, and plenty are military veterans who may have been exposed as McQueen. And as he reiterated on several occasions, most of the illnesses caused are non-cancerous, and physicians rarely know to look for the connection. As a result many of the illnesses may be misdiagnosed and never make it into public health records.

What Can We Do About It?

Asbestos rocks
Note these blue and green rocks found on the grounds of the Old Hospital, pre-demolition.


The question on everyone's minds was, what can we do about this? Can we protect ourselves? How can we know for sure how dangerous the problem is? What we need, the scientists all declared, are activity-based data sampling and analysis. Buck and Metcalf took samples at six locations around Boulder City. Where else does it occur - everywhere? Only certain places? Your yard? Your church's property? The Old Boulder City Hospital? Veterans Memorial Park? "It could be the threat only exists under certain conditions, like heavy wind from certain directions. If we can prove connections with data, we can adjust our behavior." As an example, Buck said, "I have the red head gene. I know I have sensitive skin susceptible to cancer, so when I go out I wear long sleeves, sunscreen, hats, and try not to go out in the middle of the day." With activity-based data it may be possible to minimize exposure - but maybe not.

The data gathering is too big a job for the city to pay for, Berry said. "In Libby it costs $1.2 million dollars a year just for the lab testing. That doesn't include the sample gathering." To make the problem worse, Buck said, "This isn't a Boulder City problem, it's a Southern Nevada problem." Boulder City asbestos is blowing up to Nellis. Arizona asbestos appears to be blowing in to Boulder City as well as occurring naturally. This public meeting was just the beginning of a discussion, hosted by U.S. Agriculture Department soil scientist Doug Merkler, acting privately. Merkler's group is Boulder City Citizens Advisory Group. Merkler plans for his group to meet soon to create a plan of action for soliciting state and federal assistance in the activity-based data gathering effort.
Merkler Merkler
Doug Merkler speaks the the group (left). It's hard to show exactly how full the house was, but this photo gives a decent idea (right).

There's another side to this story that I didn't have room for today: the State of Nevada disagrees that there is a problem, but their support at some level is needed to get the EPA involved. In many places that would be the end of it, but perhaps not here. Stay tuned for details.

What can you do? Brenda Buck's Action Ideas

1. Write to the Governor.
2. Write to your Clark County Commissioners
3. Write to your Senator/Congressmen
4. Write to your Local Boulder City/Henderson/Las Vegas Governmental officials.
5. Write to everyone who can make a difference.

What actions should you request that they do?

1. Adopt the California Air Resources Board (CARB) regulations for NOA - make these laws official in Clark County. Here they are: http://www.arb.ca.gov/enf/asbestos/asbestos.htm Right now we have nothing that regulates NOA. This would be a good start.

2. Ask that funding be provided to collect the data you need to make informed decisions regarding NOA exposures. This means answering the questions about: (a) what are residential exposures to NOA?

So far the only measurements taken are for the I-11 bypass, which only looked at occupational exposures for the construction workers building the highway. All of those air monitors that have been set up are, to my knowledge, for understanding occupational exposures and for monitoring how much fibers leave the construction boundaries. This is being paid for out of the funds to build the highway. Nothing is being done (yet) to find out what citizens' exposures are. The only reason I present those highway data is because that is all we have right now.

YES - ALL human activities and natural processes that cause asbestos fibers to go in the air, have the potential to expose people. Whether or not specific activities are doing this needs to be measured.

The highway is only one of many potential mechanisms. If you have a specific concern, tell the government officials, who have the power to do something about it. I cannot collect samples on private property, so I cannot do some of the testing that some of you want me to do.

(b) What are citizens' exposures to NOA when we do activities that potentially could expose us to NOA? This is where the activity based sampling comes in: Measuring potential exposures that occur because you walk on soils that contain fibers, because you ride your bike, ride your horse, ride your ATV, have a garden, etc. etc. etc.

YOU think up the scenarios that concern you and let your government (and me) know. I will try from my end to get some data collected but the real solution here will come MUCH faster, if your letters make a difference and our government at all levels takes this seriously and finds the money to get this done.

I can tell you that Clark County Air Quality has done an excellent job of listening to your concerns: They were the first to respond to our published results and the first to build a web page to provide you and others with information on this topic. They were instrumental in getting Dr. David Berry from the EPA to Boulder City last night to speak. They could carry out the necessary measurements for #2 action above, if the funding to pay for them could be obtained. They could also implement the regulations for #1 above if the Clark County Commissioners put those regulations into law.

I'm sure you can think of more, and if so please share with me. As always I will try to support everyone getting the answers we need as much as I can. Attached are the documents from EPA and ATSDR which offer common sense methods to reduce your exposure to NOA.

- Brenda Buck, Pearl83@cox.net

Extra Material

Asbestos FAQ (Buck)
Asbestos in the Backyards (CBS) - George Knapp's Report
Boulder City NOA Citizens Advisory Group (Merkler)
California Asbestos Regulations (Buck)
Limiting Exposure to Asbestos (Buck)
Toxicity of Amphibole Asbestos (Berry's slides)
UNLV NOA Research


You may also like this related article: Boulder City Tomorrow (153)
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