LAS VEGAS — A new scientific paper published this week alleges that southern Nevadans are being exposed to unhealthy levels of asbestos and that people might be dying as a result.
The report, written in part by two UNLV geologists, says dozens of local residents have died from a rare form of cancer known to be linked to asbestos minerals.
State health officials have said there is “no risk” from asbestos.
The two UNLV geologists made their initial discovery almost five years ago. They tried to let the public know and enlist the help of other scientists to investigate possible health effects, but state health officials stopped them dead in their tracks and reportedly even tried to stop reporters from writing stories about it.
In a desert area on the edge of Henderson, two scientists wearing what look like space suits poke and pick through outcroppings of rock, looking for tell tale evidence.
UNLV geologists Brenda Buck and Rod Metcalf have no trouble finding surface deposits of a bluish-green mineral. It’s all over the place.
“That crop over there has amazing green fibers,” said Buck.
The research began five years ago in an area known as the Nellis Dunes, a playground for off-roaders. Buck discovered excessive levels of arsenic, which is why warning signs were erected. She also found something else — something unusual for this geology — fibrous materials, or in other words asbestos.
In the public presentation she’s since delivered to dozens of groups, Buck explains that there is no single asbestos mineral. It’s a commercial term that covers hundreds of minerals , some of which form amphiboles, that is , elongated crystalline fibers. Only six of those fibers are subject to federal regulations.
“The reason we care is because these fibrous minerals cause disease and again we have six of them that are regulated, but there are over 400 minerals that are also fibrous in shape,” Buck said.
The health effects of most of these minerals have not been studied to any degree, buck said. Some may not be harmful at all, but the six which have been studied are deadly.
Whenever naturally occurring asbestos is disturbed, either by nature or by human activity, the fibers can become airborne. They are too small to be seen, once in the air, they can float for days. The danger comes when they are ingested or inhaled. The fibers are indestructible, which means the body cannot defend itself against them. The greater the exposure, the greater the health risk.
Renowned cancer researcher Dr. Nicholas Vogelzang of the Comprehensive Cancer Centers, says the miracle mineral that doesn’t burn has been causing disease in humans at least back to the ancient Romans.
“There is no question. There is a body of medical literature. There is a large body of legal literature. There is a large body of science literature,” Vogelzang said.
He says many people are protected by genetics. They can be exposed but not get sick. Others have increased risk because of other exposures.
“We believe asbestos is a co-carcinogen with other chemicals, for example smoking,” Vogelzang said.
After her discovery in the Nellis Dunes, Buck sought help. She asked specialists at the University of Hawaii to scour Nevada health records to see if there were any unusual spikes in disease rates.
Francine Baumann and her team accessed the Nevada cancer registry, a database managed by state health officials. What they found was a disturbing pattern of deaths from mesolthelioma, the one disease which is undeniably linked to asbestos fibers.
Because the results showed higher than normal exposures for women and younger people, the research team was pretty sure there must be asbestos in the environment somewhere, so Buck approached her fellow UNLV geologist Rod Metcalf who, coincidentally, had already found deposits of the same fibrous minerals just across the Colorado River in Arizona, a canyon where bluish rocks are abundant.
Using their own model, Buck and Metcalf made predictions about where they might find deposits of asbestos fibers. Their model proved depressingly accurate, as their map indicates
“That first study we did 43 samples, every single one of them had fibrous amphiboles,” Buck said. “This is our model for predicting where it occurs. As you can see, most of southern Nevada is predicted.
They found it in McCullough Range, adjacent to neighborhoods, a college campus and an elementary school. Their model predicts it will be found over a huge swath of southern Nevada, but as they prepared to make their findings public in 2012 they received a cease and desist order, sent by their employer, the state of Nevada. The state threatened legal action if they published any data from the cancer registry. The professors were stunned, but complied.
“We are breathing asbestos fibers and I want to know how much, and I want to know who is at risk, and what we can do to make our lives healthier, and I feel like they are not helping,” Buck said.
“It is hard for me to imagine that the primary concern here is the health and safety of the citizens of southern Nevada,” Metcalf said. “I am a citizen of southern Nevada, my children are citizens of southern Nevada, my grandchildren are citizens of southern Nevada. So from that standpoint, I’m a bit outraged.”
State health officials say one reason they were worried about this news getting out is they didn’t want to start a panic. They also say there is “no risk” from the discovery of asbestos.
Other experts the I-Team contacted agree there is no need for panic and you don’t have to sell your house and move away, but there most certainly is reason to be concerned.
Over the course of the next five nights, the I-Team will lay out the evidence at 5 p.m. On Monday night, the I-Team confronts state health officials.