It was in the fall of 2010 that University of Las Vegas professor Dr. Brenda Buck first noticed the fibrous dust on her clothes. Buck, a medical geologist, had been conducting fieldwork in the Nevada desert to test for the presence of toxic arsenic particles in the soil. What she discovered was even more disturbing: Asbestos.
Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral found in certain types of rock formations. If inhaled, its thread-like, microscopic fibers can get stuck in the lungs. Once there, they can cause a deadly cancer known as mesothelioma as well as other respiratory diseases, including lung cancer and asbestosis.
The presence of naturally occurring asbestos in Nevada therefore posed a potential public health risk, and Dr. Buck and her colleague Dr. Rodney Metcalf quickly moved to assess how much of the area might be affected. The geologists obtained funding to study just how much of the state’s landscape might contain asbestos-laden minerals. They also reached out to cancer researchers at the University of Hawaii, who study mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases, to help them determine whether Nevada residents were already being hurt by the asbestos.
Their work, however, nearly didn’t see the light of day.
New Danger from an Old Foe
When a scientist discovers a potential risk to the public, the first government officials racing to respond are usually those in charge of public health. In Nevada, however, that didn’t prove to be the case. Instead, those officials were reluctant to even admit there was a danger.
In part, that’s because scientists have only recently begun to understand the full impact of exposure to naturally-occurring asbestos outside of the manufacturing industry. Asbestos was used in many different industries in the early-to-mid-20th century to create fire-resistant materials, and the risks faced by workers who directly handle asbestos-containing products have long been understood.
But the potential dangers posed by asbestos in the atmosphere have undergone greater study in recent years. In the small town of Libby, Montana, hundreds of deaths have been traced to exposure to asbestos-laden dust generated by a nearby mining operation. During the mining process, an enormous amount of asbestos fibers became airborne. The town was declared an EPA Superfund site in the late 1990s.
Buck, Metcalf, and their colleagues were concerned that Nevada’s natural asbestos deposits could prove very dangerous. Not only is the area where they found asbestos a target for housing development, a huge highway bypass was planned for the area – a project that would inevitably generate asbestos-laden dust clouds.
But their attempts to study the issue were prevented. Nevada State public health officials abruptly rescinded the scientists’ permission to use public health records to track the levels of asbestos-related disease in Nevada residents, blocking the publication of their research. The public health officials claim that since overall levels of mesothelioma in Nevada are comparable with other states’, there’s no need for public concern.
“For the community, I would say there is nothing to worry about…the only thing that changed is that before we didn’t know that there was asbestos. Now we know that there is asbestos in the air. That doesn’t make it an emergency,” said Dr. Ihsan Azzam the state's chief epidemiologist, who spoke with a local NPR station.
Preliminary Findings Suggest Reason to Worry
Dr. Buck and her medical geology colleagues don’t agree. It took her team years to overcome the obstacles put in their path by the Public Health Department. But using data provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), they were finally able to complete their work, publishing a study in a lung cancer journal in May 2015.
Counter to the Nevada State chief epidemiologist’s statement, Buck’s published research findings were fittingly titled, “The Presence of Asbestos in the Natural Environment Is Likely Related to Mesothelioma in Young Individuals and Women in Southern Nevada.” Buck and her research team found intriguing evidence of the possible impact of naturally occurring asbestos by examining mesothelioma victims.
Since asbestos was used so widely in manufacturing and construction, the majority of victims have historically been men, who make up the bulk of the work force in those sectors. But in 2 Nevada counties where naturally occurring asbestos has been found, women are about equally as likely to be victims of mesothelioma as men. This suggests that it’s not workplace exposure which is causing their disease. More likely, the cause is the airborne asbestos particles.
Despite the undeniability of the study’s data, state public health officials remain unconcerned. “I am confident that the state of Nevada is taking all precautions necessary to protect its people,” Dr. Tracey Green, Nevada Chief Medical Officer, told NPR.
With state and local officials planning to push through the proposed highway project, and the looming possibility of asbestos-laden dust clouds, local residents may not agree.