The asbestos scare

I am repeating below an article that I ran some days ago on "Greenie Watch". I commented at the time that naturally-occurring asbestos has been around in the soil of large parts of Southern California ever since the area was settled in the 1780s -- so we should be seeing lots of asbestos-related disease in the area by now. But there has not been a single report of that! So we have in Southern California a most interesting natural experiment in showing how asbestos is not remotely the threat to health that has been proclaimed.

In response to that posting, I received a couple of emails from an anti-asbestos organization (significantly funded by trial lawyers, I would imagine) disputing what I had said. They implicitly admitted that SoCal did not have an unusually high incidence of asbestos-related disease but tried to explain that away. Their explanation, in my summary, is that there is both "good" and "bad" asbestos (I wonder why we don't usually hear THAT?) and that the bad asbestos has until recently obligingly confined itself to virgin territory undisturbed by man.

If you believe that, you would believe anything, it seems to me. For a start, virgin territory must be as rare in SoCal as are are other sorts of virginity. But I will leave it to unaffilated experts in California soil types to map those types against areas and dates of settlement.

The interest of the article below is to show that in at least some areas the naturally occurring asbestos is of a type that two arms of government consider dangerous and that quite minor human activity -- such as kids playing -- can kick up asbestos-containing dust which can then be breathed in. As much of SoCal is a desert climate made usable by irrigation only, there is a lot of dust there to be kicked up. So even if an area is not quite "virgin", almost any usage that has been made of it should have kicked up lots of asbestos. And all the farming in SoCal using those horrific PLOWS must be saturating the area in asbestos!

I am not of course disputing that heavy industrial and mining exposure to some types of asbestos can cause disease. Toxicologists however have a saying that "The toxicity is in the dose". In other words, scientific caution would dictate that we ask if sub-industrial levels (lower levels) of exposure to asbestos are also harmful. The California example would seem to show that such levels are NOT harmful and that the danger from asbestos has been vastly over-hyped

The U.S. Geological Survey on Tuesday confirmed a federal environmental agency's findings of a particularly dangerous kind of asbestos on playgrounds in El Dorado Hills. USGS experts in mineral identification reached the conclusion after closely examining the playgrounds' study samples of tiny particles that the mining industry asserted were not asbestos.

The investigation found that most of those particles did not conform to the traditional commercial definition of asbestos, as the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association had argued. The microscopic bits of minerals nonetheless were within scientists' widely accepted range of sizes, shapes and chemical compositions counted as "asbestos" for health studies, USGS scientists said. "We don't equate the commercial definition of asbestos with toxicity," said Gregory Meeker, a mineralogist with the USGS Denver office who led the investigation. "It has not been health based. It's been for the guy who wants to mine a deposit and make a profit at it."

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials who conducted the October 2004 study of El Dorado Hills' Community Park and nearby schoolyards said the Geological Survey's findings affirmed its pioneering exposure studies of naturally occurring asbestos in El Dorado Hills and elsewhere in the country. "The survey's study refutes assertions made by the R.J. Lee report and supports our findings and conclusions," said Dan Meer, who supervised the playgrounds' sampling by the EPA's San Francisco regional office.

Spokesman for the industry lobby could not be reached for comment late Tuesday. But the consultant who conducted the review of the EPA sampling had maintained that the environmental agency did not follow proper standards for identifying asbestos particles in air samples. "It is too bad that they chose to ignore a very detailed analysis that we had provided to EPA and USGS," Rich Lee, president of R.J. Lee Group of Pittsburgh, said in July. The EPA study found that children and adults in El Dorado Hills can significantly raise their exposure to breathable asbestos particles simply from the dust kicked up riding a bicycle or playing basketball on outdoor courts.

The main public health concern related to such exposures is mesothelioma, an inoperable and almost always fatal cancer of the membranes lining the chest and other body cavities, asbestos health experts say. Short exposure -- months, not years -- can be enough to instigate the disease, though it typically takes 30 or more years to take hold.

The EPA strapped personal air monitors on agency technicians who mimicked children's activities at the park and on sports fields at Silva Valley Elementary, Jackson Elementary and Rolling Hills Middle schools.

About 1,000 of the El Dorado Hills' 31,000 residents packed the Community Park's gymnasium to learn more from federal scientists. Findings prompted the Community Services District to blacktop the New York Creek trail running through the park and increase irrigation on sports fields to cut dust. The schools also adopted dust controls. At the same, the superintendent of El Dorado County schools was widely circulating copies of the Stone, Sand & Gravel Association's critique discrediting the EPA study. Superintendent Vicki Barber stopped short of endorsing the industry view. But she said it reinforced doubts that she and other local officials harbored over the reliability of EPA asbestos testing. Barber declined to comment Tuesday, saying she had not yet read the full USGS report.

County Supervisor Helen Baumann, who represents El Dorado Hills, called the Geological Survey's study a "a fair analysis" and left her confident that the county is "doing everything we need to do to protect public health." The USGS, the scientific arm of the Interior Department, launched the $100,000 investigation at the request of the EPA, which wanted an independent examination of the industry critique. Last April, the USGS team collected dozens of samples of rock, soil and settled dust in the areas where the environmental agency had conducted its asbestos exposure assessment. USGS mineralogists also analyzed samples the EPA had collected using a number of sophisticated tests to determine the chemistry, mineral composition and form of the asbestos structures detected. The USGS investigators said asbestos health experts, not the mining industry or mineralogists, need to take the lead in redefining asbestos from a health perspective. "Ultimately, it is the health community that must determine what particle types are significant with respect to asbestos-related diseases," the report said



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