Last month, we reported on naturally occurring asbestos in Nevada; a development that was being outright ignored by state health officials. Now, new emails released to the media organization KLAS-TV reveal more than just a slow government response. Officials within the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) deliberately tried to discredit researchers studying the health effects of asbestos that occur naturally within Nevada’s dry, semiarid climate.
In 2012, the state issued a cease and desist order when Dr. Rodney Metcalf and Dr. Brenda Buck, two geologists from UNLV, tried to publish a paper about the potential health effects of asbestos that had been found in southern Nevada.
Dr. Tracey Green, Nevada chief medical officer, said that the cease and desist order was related to the fact that the UNLV researchers were required to send their findings to the state itself before sharing information with any third parties.
“We were responding to [Buck's] behavior, not to her information,” Green said in a Nevada Public Radio interview back in February.
But the newly-released emails tell a different story.
In a July 17, 2014 e-mail, Nevada State Epidemiologist Dr. Ihsan Azzam said, "That wouldn't have been a big deal for us except for the fact [that] her research was surprisingly erroneous, in-replicable, and invalid."
Simply put, the state tried to censor the paper because they disagreed with its findings. The cease and desist prevented the researchers from accessing the cancer registry in order to determine if the area affected by asbestos had a higher incidence of cancer.
In Nevada, It’s Science Versus the State
Disagreement is part of the scientific method. Scientific evidence gets tested and other researchers can review the experiment’s methods and try to replicate, refute, or build upon the results. Through peer-reviewed research, new discoveries are often made, and everybody benefits from learning the most accurate information.
However, state censorship is not – and should not be – part of the scientific method.
What’s perhaps most shocking in all of this, is that Dr. Azzam told NPR that the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) was motivated by preventing unnecessary panic. However, the confusion and shock over the censored research created more worry for the public than if the state hadn’t interfered and let the scientific method continue on unobstructed.
In addition to hindering research, the released emails show that the DHHS conspired to slander the scientists involved in the asbestos discovery.
One senior staff member wrote, "With so many parallels, I spent yesterday PM in my office going back into the Wakefield disaster…"
Andrew Wakefield was a vaccine researcher who was discredited by DHHS as a fraud. The staffer continued to say that he had done background research on Wakefield to see if it "[could] be applied to what we are seeing unravel down in Boulder City, Nevada."
The department was trying to prove that the two geologists who had made the asbestos discovery, Dr. Metcalf and Dr. Buck, were also frauds.
In her indirect response to the fraud allegation, Dr. Metcalf told KLAS-TV, "People can justify a lot of things in their minds. That we are just out for big grants and trying to draw attention to ourselves. This kind of science is not the easiest science to do. It is stressful."
Nevertheless, even as the DHHS was digging in its heels and insisting that there was no harm to be caused by the naturally occurring asbestos, other government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT), and Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC), took an active role in researching the asbestos discovery and creating subsequent regulations.
Naturally Occurring Asbestos & Health Effects
Asbestos is a family of natural minerals that has long, thin fibrous crystals. In the 20th century, the minerals were mined to make fireproof clothing, brake pads, building insulation, and many other products. However, research found that the dire health risks associated with asbestos outweighed any usefulness the mineral had. Those risks include cancers, including the rare and lethal mesothelioma, as well as an inflammatory lung condition called asbestosis.
Most of the research on the health effects of asbestos has been centered on its uses in industry. The dust becomes airborne during manufacturing, construction, and demolition, which is often how the mineral becomes dangerous to humans. However, even when asbestos dust is naturally occurring in the soil – and not in building materials – it can still be inhaled into the lungs in the same way. This could happen during major construction projects and even during natural events, like high winds.
According to the United States Department of Labor (DOL), there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. Although risks increase with longer and more frequent exposure, asbestos-related diseases can be caused by inhaling a single fiber.
Is There Danger in Nevada?
The Nevada DHHS claims that the natural asbestos holds no risks because Nevada’s rate of mesothelioma is in fact lower than 32 other states.
However, in southern Nevada, mesothelioma is now being seen in populations that traditionally are at low-risk for developing this particular cancer caused by asbestos. Because mesothelioma has a long latency period, as much as 20-50 years, it is typically seen in older adults. It is most commonly found in men who have worked in asbestos-related industries, such as shipbuilding, manufacturing, construction, and demolition. But in Nevada, there is an elevated number of people younger than 55 and women who have the disease. In some cases, the mesothelioma victims in Nevada were under 20, which, according to a University of Hawaii study, could be caused by exposure to environmental asbestos very early in life.
Mesothelioma is still a rare cancer, but current research suggests that further studies are warranted to keep risks in the population to a minimum, especially because the Las Vegas metropolitan area has 1.9 million people who are either in direct contact with naturally occurring asbestos or are living in areas that are downwind from naturally occurring asbestos sources.
Keeping Nevada Healthy
Even though the DHHS may have tried to shut down asbestos research in Nevada, other state agencies have responded more responsibly. In 2013, The Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) began evaluating what the presence of asbestos minerals could mean for current highway projects in the area.
During construction of Interstate 11, NDOT took recommendations from the EPA about how to minimize risks related to asbestos dust. Tony Illia, a Nevada Public Information Officer, told the Boulder City Review:
"We have installed work zone air monitors where samples are collected daily and analyzed in a state-of-the-art testing lab. The project will shut-down work during extremely windy days, and all workers must clean their clothes and boots before exiting the jobsite by either changing clothes or using a High-Efficiency Particulate Air vacuum."
While it’s good that NDOT is taking active measures to protect Nevada citizens from the dangers of naturally occurring asbestos, more government agencies – especially the Nevada DHHS – need to take an active role in preventing asbestos-related illnesses, especially as urban areas continue to grow and spread into asbestos-contaminated areas.