LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Geologists from UNLV have confirmed some unsettling suspicions, namely, that an estimated one million acres in Clark County has asbestos in the rocks and soil.

Naturally-occurring asbestos was first found in the ground in Clark County in 2013.

Since then, the same scientists have proven that asbestos exists in 20 percent of the land in Clark County, including acreage that is designated for off-road recreation, an activity that will kick up clouds of dust that are filled with asbestos fibers.

“I was into ATV’s, off-roading, biking, a little of everything in the outdoors desert area. I did a lot of riding around the dry lake bed,” said Tom Chasey, retired Las Vegas Metropolitan police officer.

For years, Chasey was a desert rat who breathed the dust stirred up in and around the El Dorado Valley dry lake bed, the same area that is still used by off-roaders. It’s hard to find any part of that range that doesn’t have tell-tale signs of ATV’s, or to spot any hill not already sliced and diced by off-roaders.

In 2018, Clark County, along with other government entities, began the process of designating three large parcels of public land as official off-road recreation sites, where ATV’s and motorbikes can stir up as much dust as they might want. But in two of the three sites, there’s a nearly invisible but deadly serious problem — asbestos.

“We definitely do not recommend that those are good places to have off-road vehicle recreation sites,” said Dr. Brenda Buck, UNLV geologist.

Since 2013, Buck has been alerting public agencies to the very real health risks posed by NOA, or naturally occurring asbestos. She and her colleague Dr. Rod Metcalf first confirmed the presence of NOA in rocks and soil in several locations, and they predicted  it would be found over a much larger area.

Six years later, they’ve confirmed it. One million acres, maybe more, have NOA in the ground, about 20 percent of Clark County, from Mesquite and Gold Butte down to Laughlin, with Henderson and Boulder City in between.

(Click here to open map. You can click on a specific area to make it larger. The black marks indicate where no asbestos was found. The other marks show where varying levels of asbestos was found.)

State health officials tried to suppress those findings, but when the word got out, it caused a one year delay in the construction of the I-11 bypass. Federal law requires asbestos protections for workers. Nevada has no similar standard. Simply put, there is no such thing as a safe exposure level for asbestos.

“We found that when we put the asbestos from the Lake Mead area in mice, that it is just as toxic as the Libby asbestos in Montana,” Buck said.

Libby, Montana is the site of the deadliest environmental disaster in American history. Asbestos fibers, nearly identical to those found in Nevada, killed more than 400 people and sickened thousands more.

Libby residents had also been assured there was no danger from the invisible fibers, but they have a graveyard of evidence to the contrary. Ironically, Chasey didn’t know until he moved to Libby that his own severe lung problem, diagnosed in Nevada as mere COPD, was actually the result of breathing asbestos dust while off-roading in the desert.

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In the ground, asbestos isn’t much of a risk, but once it gets stirred up and airborne, the fibers can be carried for days and many miles, especially putting off-road sites in areas known to have asbestos carries risks.

“Avoid the dust as much as you can and pay attention where they say this stuff is,” Chasey said.

Buck sent a detailed letter to Clark County last month to let them know about asbestos found at two of the three proposed off-road recreation sites. The county sent the I-Team a statement today, saying the new information will be part of any environmental review going forward.