The massive Interstate 11 project is snaking its way through sections of Clark County that have known deposits of natural asbestos. The discovery of asbestos stopped the project in its tracks for a year until managers could develop a program to protect their workers, but is the public also being protected from asbestos dust?
As you may recall, state health officials were so concerned that the discovery of natural asbestos might derail the bypass project, they spiked the original study. They tried to stifle the scientists who found the evidence, then tried to discredit their research.
The agencies and companies in charge of the highway, however, have left health officials in the dust in a sense. They know the risk is real.
“The idea is to monitor or capture what an employee is breathing. We take an air pump, calibrate it,” said Fisher Company Asbestos Manager Doug Laquey.
Every day for the past year, portable air monitors have been attached to the belts and collars of employees on the massive I-11 Bypass project. That is approximately ten workers per day. The man in charge, Laquey, is a construction guy, not a scientist. He has embraced the role of asbestos manager, because he knows what’s at stake.
“The more exposure you have, the greater the potential you have for disease down the road,” he said. “So, what we’re trying to do is everything we can to minimize anybody’s exposure on the project or anyone outside the project.”
His primary assignment is to protect employees from exposure to natural asbestos, but he’s also a de facto public health officer.
Every day, the air filters collected from employees are shipped by air to a lab in Arizona to determine levels of asbestos exposure. Also analyzed are filters plucked from a string of monitors positioned on the outer edges of the bypass project, installed to detect asbestos fibers that might be carried by the wind beyond the job site.
State health officials have repeatedly assured the public that vast deposits of natural asbestos in the direct path of the highway represent “no risk” to public health. Those on the ground see it differently.
“You don’t want those fibers to become airborne. Your concern with asbestos is breathing it into the lungs,” Laquey said. “It’s like a little tiny dart that punctures the air sacs in the lungs and those fibers are really small, measured in microns. You can’t see them with the human eye.”
The risks from natural asbestos were tragically demonstrated in the town of Libby, Montana, where long-term exposure to the deadly fibers killed more than 400 people and caused debilitating disease in thousands more.
Workers carried the fibers home on their clothing and exposed family members who became sick. On the beltway project, every employee undergoes asbestos training. Facilities were installed to clean asbestos off all vehicles, inside and out, and off of the workers, right down to clothing.
“We’ve got boot washers to keep it off their boots,” Laquey said.
Two UNLV geologists are largely responsible for the safety precautions on the beltway project. Doctors Brenda Buck and Rod Metcalf discovered natural asbestos in southern Nevada four years ago, then predicted it would be found all along what became the path of the highway.
State health officials were aghast and issued a cease and desist order to prevent the research from being made public. When the news finally broke, it caused the highway project to be delayed for a year.
If not for Buck and Metcalf, hundreds of highway workers and their families would have been exposed, though it would take years before asbestos diseases struck. The two scientists say they are glad OSHA standards are in effect to protect workers, but they note OSHA rules were not designed to protect the larger public.
“It fits the letter of the law, but the law does not mean that it is safe,” Dr. Buck said. “So, the workers that are out there, even if they are at the level of OSHA exposure, are still going to incur a significant risk of disease, negative health consequences.”
“Even OSHA doesn’t call those cutoffs safe. They call them permissive exposure levels,” said Dr. Metcalf.
Nevada has no laws or standards for natural asbestos. Since our state health officials seem to think asbestos poses no risk, it isn’t likely we will see any standards set.
OSHA safeguards are in place for the highway, but they don’t apply to other pending development in the asbestos fields.
So, how much asbestos is being detected? It’s always worse on windy days, plus there is another source of asbestos in the wind, and it’s bigger than the bypass.
The I-Team will have that part of the story tonight on 8 News NOW at 11 p.m.