Picture it: An idyllic park situated right on the slopes of central California’s Sierra foothills. There are children playing — running, biking, and kicking soccer balls in open fields. But behind all of this unassuming joy, in the background, stands a pack of agents from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dressed in protective suits and wearing respirators. As the kids indulge in mid-afternoon revelry, the parents hover nearby keeping a watchful eye, while white-suited agents are busy collecting air samples throughout the park. They are testing for traces of the carcinogenic mineral fiber known as asbestos.
Sound far-fetched? Well, this is exactly what happened in the fall of 2004, in the picturesque town of El Dorado Hills, CA — home to one of the country’s largest asbestos hot spots. It’s a sleepy little suburb east of Sacramento where you’ll find gated communities, high-end shopping malls, and low crime rates. You’ll also find worry expressed in the faces of many residents because they know their city sits atop serpentine — a primary source of asbestos that just so happens to be California’s official state rock. It turns out that when developers cleared out land to build El Dorado Hills, they dug deep into that rock and churned up dust that filled the air with naturally-occurring asbestos fibers.
That park where EPA agents tested is no safe haven either. In May 2005, the EPA announced its findings: Every single one of the hundreds of air samples they collected that day contained asbestos fibers.
Men, women, and children — virtually anyone who lives and works in El Dorado Hills — is potentially at risk for asbestos exposure. The scary part? Inhalation of a single asbestos fiber can lead to deadly asbestos-related diseases, including the incurable cancer, mesothelioma.
Asbestos Exposure in the Golden State Is a Serious Problem
The threat of asbestos exposure in California is real — and truly frightening. While the situation in El Dorado Hills quickly became a national crisis, hundreds of other communities throughout the state are dealing with similar problems. They too were built on ground rich in asbestos deposits. In addition, homes, schools, plants and factories, refineries, and shipyards have been built across the state with asbestos-containing products and materials.
The risk for occupational exposure to asbestos in California is also high. Asbestos exposure has been found in:
- Power plants
- Steel mills
- Iron mills
- Oil refineries
- Construction sites
Experts say that men and women who work at these sites across the state are at higher risk than the general population for being diagnosed with mesothelioma — a cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs — or an asbestos-related disease in their lifetime. Further, over 200 California companies were sold asbestos-manufactured materials, including:
- Bethlehem Steel
- Hunter’s Point
- Long Beach Naval
- Todd Shipyards
- Standard Oil Station
- Douglas Oil Refinery
- S. Naval Station
- PG&E Power Plant
People who worked on-site for these California-based companies (and many others) are at risk for having been exposed to asbestos on-the-job.
A Numbers Game: Mesothelioma & Asbestos-Related Deaths in CA and across the U.S.
One can’t turn to the numbers for solace – in fact, the numbers paint an even grimmer picture for California.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics (CDC-NCHS), California ranks first in the nation in total number of deaths for mesothelioma, with 271 deaths in 2005 and a total number of 1,779 deaths between 1999 and 2005.
What’s more? An EWG Action Fund Study found that there were 21,338 asbestos-related deaths in California — 3,997 from mesothelioma — between 1999 and 2013.
In Los Angeles alone, there have been more than 1,200 asbestos-related deaths and more than 900 mesothelioma deaths.
Nationally, there are about 3,200 new cases of mesothelioma each year. That means that 9 out of every 1 million Americans will be diagnosed with asbestos-triggered mesothelioma. Experts believe that as many as 60,000 men and women will die from malignant mesothelioma between 2010 and 2030.
Today, back in El Dorado Hills, it’s still business as usual. People get up to go work, children ride the bus to school, and little league games are still being played at the park where, 12 years ago, dozens of EPA agents collected air samples. But everyone in town knows that what lies beneath them – in the dark recesses of the ground they stand on – is a rock that is potentially deadly.
It’s not an ideal situation for the people there, but it’s home — no matter how dangerous the air around them really is.