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December 1, 2022

Toxic asbestos found to affect Nevada residents

By TIFFANY LE | February 19, 2015

Southern Nevada residents may have caught wind of a toxic rock.

Scientists discovered that cancer-causing asbestos minerals might be affecting populations living nearby. The increasing number of asbestos studies in the region has already delayed construction of highways for fear of exposure.

Asbestos is a set of six minerals that occur naturally in some eastern mountain ranges and many parts of the West, including Nevada. Most of the compounds in the U.S. today originally came from Canada. People have mined for it for thousands of years, but at the end of the 1800s, it was mined more extensively for its desirable qualities: Asbestos is fire and chemical resistant, absorbs sound and is affordable. More than 3,000 products were made using asbestos like ceiling tiles, firemen’s clothing, adhesives, pipe insulation, roofing materials and plasters.

Everyone is exposed to at least some asbestos during his or her lifetime, whether it is in the water we drink or the air we breathe. However, people who consistently worked with the minerals fell severely ill. Scientists studying asbestos realized that it was an incredibly carcinogenic compound; very high levels of exposure increase risk for lung cancer, mesothelioma (a rare cancer that develops from the lung’s protective lining) and other respiratory and digestive diseases. Its fibrils are easily carried through the wind, are easily inhaled and will embed themselves in people’s lungs. They’re very minuscule to see and are odorless. More than 50 countries have banned the minerals, but the U.S. isn’t one of them.

In their studies over the past few years, geologists Brenda Buck and Rodney Metcalf collected soil samples in the southern Nevada area and discovered how rich the region was in asbestos. Knowing how deadly it was, they contacted various experts on asbestos-related diseases. Francine Baumann, an epidemiologist from the University of Hawaii, prepared them an initial report.

Baumann’s report noted that she observed a disturbing pattern of mesothelioma among residents in the affected southern Nevada counties of Clark and Nye. According to her study published earlier this month in the Journal of Thoracic Oncology, her team assessed the amount of carcinogenic minerals in the environment as well as the rates of asbestos-related diseases there.

They discovered increased rates of the cancer in adults under age 55. Some of the patients were teenagers, and many women in the area were also affected. These findings were unusual to her team; mesothelioma typically occurs four to eight times more frequently in men around age 74. The finding suggests that some of the mesothelioma cancers could have been caused, at least in part, by some exposure to asbestos.

Buck and Metcalf later found similarly sized asbestos minerals in the Nevada cities of Las Vegas, around Boulder City and eastern Henderson.

The Nevada Department of Transportation already delayed construction of a $490 million interstate highway, called Boulder City Bypass, because it crosses through an area that the two researchers identified as having high levels of asbestos.

After seven months of analyzing 150 soil samples, however, state officials concluded that levels were low enough that construction workers could proceed with building. To ensure workers’ safety, they intend to closely oversee the air and water down the roadbed.

The new study encourages further research into the levels of asbestos in southern Nevada so that state officials can develop strategies to minimize exposure.

In contrast, according to the website of Maryland’s Department of the Environment, there are no known safe exposure levels for people who work with or live in areas of asbestos. Maryland regulates the removal, repair and encapsulation of the minerals. It also oversees the training given to handle asbestos, the people who are licensed to work with it and any schools who might use it.

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