LAUGHLIN — A lot remains unknown, but it is possible that naturally occurring asbestos is in and around Laughlin and the neighboring areas.
Brenda Buck and Rodney Metcalf, from the Department of Geoscience of the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and Jean Pfau, from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology of Montana State University, presented their findings regarding naturally occurring asbestos during a special presentation at the Laughlin Library Feb. 2.
Metcalf showed a map displaying areas in and around Laughlin that have tested positive for naturally occurring asbestos, NOA. While it appeared that there isn’t as much around Laughlin as there is closer to Boulder City and the Lake Mead Recreation Area, there isn’t enough information at this point to clearly know if it is harmful or not.
Metcalf said one thing to keep in mind is that test results can also be a bit deceptive. Most tests are set up to to keep the testing less expensive and so that means it’s not going to look for asbestos as the lower levels. More in depth tests that give more accurate information are much more expensive, he continued.
Buck said what’s important is the risk to residents. How much exposure a person gets to NOA will increase the risk of various health issues. Soils can have low concentrations of NOA but because asbestos is so small, it’s easily carried by the wind and stays in the air and breathing in is how it gets into a person’s body, she continued.
Buck’s background is in medical geology and she studies how the earth materials impact humans’ health. She was studying what the impact of breathing in dust while off-road driving when she became concerned about having found fibrous materials and concerned of the exposure to them, she said.
Buck invited the University of Hawaii Cancer Research Center to look at the Nevada state cancer registry and analyze the data, she said. Unfortunately, they did find reason to be concerned, she continued.
Buck explained the first thing the researchers look for is the number of cases of Mesothelioma because it’s an indicator disease, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. They looked for particular evidence and that is to look for young people and women who may be impacted.
Buck said the reason for looking for those two groups is because NOA tends to impact younger people more often and because it’s not occupational exposure, it means more women are likely to be exposed. Looking at the data, The group found that very young people in southern Nevada were getting mesothelioma and the ration of men to women getting it was 1:1, much higher than the 6:1 ratio usually found with occupational exposure, Buck said.
Metcalf talked about what asbestos is and how it’s been used. There are five minerals that are regulated asbestos, he said. Asbestos has been mined previously to be used in products because it’s fire resistant and resistant to chemical erosion. When the The World Trade Center came down in the 9/11 attacks, there was a lot of asbestos in the debris because it was included in the construction of the buildings, he continued.
The professors talked about the difficulty of dealing with asbestos because it’s so small and the body can’t get it out of the system. It’s a fibrous material that builds up over time.
Pfau discussed her own studies in relation to Libby, Mont. Libby is known for having had a mine for asbestos and the community is known for all the health issues they’ve had even since the mine closed in the late 1970s.
She said the type of asbestos in Libby has been found in Mohave County and the Lake Mead Recreation Area. The amphibole asbestos seems to kick the immune system into overdrive, making a person more susceptible to illnesses like asthama or autoimmune diseases, Pfau said. While in her studies she found that the asbestos in the neighboring areas appear to be just as impactful as the asbestos in Libby and that environmental exposure can be dangerous, more studies are needed to fully answer questions, she continued.
Pfau talked about how Libby residents were frequently misdiagnosed as having Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, COPD, when it was asbestos. Pleural disease is common with asbestos and it means that a fibrous lining develops around the lungs, making it increasingly difficult for a person to breath until it’s impossible.
There were several questions and concerns raised throughout the presentation.
Jim Maniaci, Laughlin Town Advisory Board chairman, indicated he felt the presentation was a sales pitch for more money. “As a citizen of Laughlin, I object to government employees, such as university professors, who use some of their federal grant time and money to conduct a sales campaign — especially when it is promoted as being a Laughlin situation — to form pressure to continue and expand their work in other areas,” he told The Laughlin Nevada Times.
“My feeling has nothing to do with the validity of the research of the seriousness of the disease in question. I also feel sorry for our neighbors in Boulder City who are the real target of this campaign of fear and tear-jerk appeals,” Maniaci added.