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Bay Area rests atop a slumbering threat
Development releases the poison, which lies under most foothill counties
By Ian Hoffman and Douglas Fischer - April 3, 2005 - In a Montana valley of 10,000, at least 200 people died breathing "naturally occurring" asbestos and federal health authorities say another 2,000 or more face shorter lives, made harsher by cancer and the gradual hardening of their lungs.
Federal environmental and health officials now talk of another potentially fated place the rapidly growing Sacramento suburb of El Dorado Hills where test after test are showing elevated concentrations of cancer-causing amphibole asbestos in soil and air in parks, a playground, athletic fields, roads, the back yards of homes.
And it may not stop there.
The potential for asbestos deposits so problematic in El Dorado Hills and Libby, Mont. exists throughout Northern California. State geologists say likely asbestos-containing rock runs from the Coastal Range including every Bay Area county to the Klamath Range to the Sierra foothills, from Mariposa County north to Lassen. Many have experienced wildfire growth in the past decade.
Left undisturbed in the Earth, asbestos deposits pose no risk. But when terrain gets bull-dozed, blasted and blown to bits, when developers spread the fibrous mineral across gravel roads and softball parks, then the asbestos sets about its deadly work.
"This problem definitely goes beyond El Dorado hills," said Dan Meer, a geologist who heads Superfund response, planning and assessment for the EPA's Pacific Northwest Region. "It's the convergence of aggressive development and the asbestiform mineral deposits."
Health officials are still grappling with the problem's scope.
Residents of El Dorado Hills are on the verge of learning that for years they were breathing air laden with invisible, spear-shaped fibers. Exposure, the EPA estimates, came as they walked in public spaces, played and watched sports on neighborhood fields.
For several days EPA experts wearing protective "moon suits" and air monitors played baseball, gardened, hiked and otherwise mimicked everyday life, for both adults and children. They found that ordinary human activity creates a personal cloud or "Pig Pen effect" named for a character in the Peanuts comic strip around each person.
The results 22,000 measurements of air and soil are a tightly guarded secret. But they are so explosive that a top environmental official in El Dorado County privy to the numbers put out a press release warning the agency is about to "scare the living daylights out of every man, woman and child" in the county.
El Dorado environmental-management director Jon Morgan says the EPA's tests of air around active humans don't fit any established federal protocol and amount to "artificially 'stirring the dust.'" The county preferred a multi-county, regional study of multiple pollutants.
"It's diabolical," Morgan said Saturday. "It's about the power of those people and what they're doing with it."
Last week, Meer was mum about the data, saying the agency was still grappling with how to present the numbers and would likely miss a customary deadline of having fact-sheets prepared two weeks prior to its scheduled April 22 public meeting.
"We're scrambling," he said. EPA is crafting its message to inform residents "without spreading panic in the streets."
Scientists differ over whether people in El Dorado Hills are showing the effects of asbestos yet. El Dorado Hills is unlikely to face a health outlook quite as bleak as that of Libby, where vermiculite miners dug into veins of asbestos and the EPA is performing a house-by-house cleanup under Superfund.
Yet like Libby, El Dorado soils are full of fibers that could be many times as carcinogenic as ordinary commercial asbestos.
Certainly, any health effects could be a long time coming. The first signs of asbestos-triggered cancer and lung disease usually take 15 to 50 years to show up. Western El Dorado County's population doubled in the'70s, and doubled again in the '80s. In 2000, population in El Dorado Hills hit 18,000 and has grown by about 3,000 every year since.
The same tale of growth could be said for just about any foothills county in Northern California. Five of the top 10 fastest growing counties by percentage have sizable deposits of rock that likely contain asbestos, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Which means for 20 years developers riding the Northern California suburban boom may, as in El Dorado, have dug and bulldozed their way through veins of a potentially lethal form of asbestos, then used the dirt as fill for subdivisions, roads, schools and playgrounds.
Asbestos-containing rock is so common in California that it is prevalent in the state rock, serpentine. Of the state's 58 counties, 44 feature some likely asbestos-containing rock, including all of the Bay Area.
The question is what does the future hold for families who are living, playing and gardening in soil full of fibers that can take years off their lives, particularly those of their children?
Experts don't have an answer just yet.
"It's not like 'oh my god, the entire state (is) living on a toxic deposit of amphibole asbestos,'" Meer said.
But "if you live in an area of naturally occurring asbestos, you have to be smart about how you do things out-of-doors."
The science of commercial asbestos is well evolved. Its effects on miners, insulation installers, construction workers, brake-pad makers, naval pipe fitters and others have been studied for decades.
In the worst cases of commercial exposure, the EPA and other federal agencies have arrived in force, fencing off areas as Superfund sites and carting off vast amounts of rock and dirt for cleanup.
For naturally occurring deposits stirred up by development however, it's clear Uncle Sam will not be so helpful. "It's not an issue the EPA can help with," said EPA spokesman Mark Merchant. "We're not going to make the county a Superfund Site."
State geologists gradually are mapping likely locations, one county at a time. It is a big job. They finished an El Dorado County map five years ago and have 43 more counties to go where asbestos deposits are likely, totaling more than 1 percent of the state's land area.
The El Dorado experience could happen elsewhere as U.S. cities swell, and new home building pushes into natural asbestos deposits. But where? Nationally, the effort to find natural asbestos before humans dig into it could end in October.
The Bush administration is proposing to eliminate the only nationwide search for likely deposits of asbestos, one of 38 "lower priority" minerals projects to be axed. White House budget officials argued that private industry, academia or states could fill the void.
Brad VanGosen, a USGS geologist in Denver who is working on a preliminary map of asbestos deposits in the eastern United States, doubts anyone else will pick up the job.
He has documented 258 proven deposits running in a belt from Alabama to Maine. It arcs through the mid-Atlantic, passing just south of Atlanta and west of Washington, D.C., into Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York, including a bit of Central Park and Staten Island, a former asbestos mine.
"This is my third year on it. I'm finally getting to the good stuff," VanGosen said.
At the same time, as Congress debates creating a $140 billion asbestos trust fund for exposed workers nationwide, lawmakers are including non-mining residents of Libby, but excluding people such as those in El Dorado who discover they are living on potentially deadly land.
The trust fund bill is now in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"This new information that's coming out of California is something we're going to have to look at carefully in that context," said Howard Gantman, a spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat on the committee. "It does raise some serious concerns."
El Dorado also could spur changes in how environmental and health regulators measure and weigh the health risk of asbestos.
More than 90 percent of commercial asbestos is crysotile asbestos, common in serpentine. But Libby's asbestos and most of El Dorado's are of a different, more durably mineral class called amphiboles. Crysotile fibers slowly break down in lung fluid. In terms of a human lifetime, amphiboles are forever.
At the urging of two independent risk assessors, the EPA is recalculating asbestos cancer risk to reflect the higher carcinogenicity of amphiboles and longer fibers in general.
"The research that we've done suggests that as a group, fiber for fiber, amphiboles are substantially more hazardous toward the induction of mesothelioma and potentially more hazardous toward induction of lung cancer than crysotile," said one of the risk assessors, Wayne Berman, president of Albany-based Aeolus Inc.
Given crysotile and amphibole asbestos with an identical mix of fiber lengths and shapes, he said, "it looks like amphiboles are 700 to 800 times more hazardous for mesothelioma and lung cancer combined than crysotile asbestos."
But federal and state standards for asbestos in air, soil and water date to 1986 and treat both types of minerals the same in assessing cancer risk. In a draft report obtained by the Oakland Tribune, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry used those cancer models in evaluating health effects of asbestos at El Dorado's Oak Ridge High School.
The agency concludes that with paving and covering of all bare native dirt at the high school, plus vigorous, weekly cleaning of classrooms, "current exposures to asbestos have been minimized" there.
But in the past, the agency suggested, students and teachers probably inhaled enough asbestos for an added risk of 1 in 10,000 chance of contracting mesothelioma, an untreatable cancer typically lethal within 24 months of diagnosis. Coaches, student athletes and outdoor maintenance staff had a "greater than 1 in 10,000" risk, the report says.
The agency acknowledged that, because it used the 1986 model, the assessment "likely underestimates risk because the fibrous amphibole asbestos found at the school poses an increased risk for disease, especially for mesothelioma." Depending on the length and shape of the fibers, a 100-fold increase translates into a one-in-100 added risk of cancer.
Since 1990, California has regulated construction, rock quarrying and road building in areas with likely asbestos-containing rock. In those areas, workers must keep soils watered, use wind fences and other "best-available technologies" to control fugitive dust. The regulations still have exemptions, require no air monitoring and grandfather an estimated 700-plus miles of roads topped with asbestos-containing rock.
"Those things will achieve 80-90 percent reduction in most cases, and that's where we've drawn the line," said Dan Donohoue, chief of emissions assessment for the California Air Resources Board. "We don't think it's our call to say no you can't develop that site."
Meer agrees but says tighter rules and enforcement may be needed.
"This has to be a global effort," he said. "A lot of it is land use, a lot of it is local regulatory enforcement. It's going to take a cooperative effort of everybody regulators and homeowners and school people. Everybody."
One question that Meer knows he'll get: Would he raise his three kids in El Dorado? He doesn't have an answer just yet.
"All I can say is our thinking is definitely evolving but we will have an answer on (April) the 22nd."
Contact Ian Hoffman at firstname.lastname@example.org and Douglas Fischer at email@example.com.
Bill spotlights natural asbestos
A state task force would examine health risks in the Sierra foothills.
By Chris Bowman -- Bee Staff Writer
April 5, 2005 - The state Legislature has taken its first step toward regulating construction in areas with naturally occurring asbestos, a toxic air contaminant of growing concern in developing Sierra foothill communities.
The Senate Committee on Environmental Quality on Monday approved a bill that would have a team of state health and environmental specialists develop ways to assess and minimize residents' risks of asbestos-related disease.
The proposed state asbestos task force would not have regulatory power. But the results of its work likely would lead to tighter restrictions on grading, bulldozing, blasting and other earthwork in soil and rock known or likely to contain the fibrous minerals, the bill's author said.
"It will likely require state laws to further protect residents from exposure," said Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento.
The environmental committee passed the measure, Senate Bill 655, on a 5-1 bipartisan vote that included Dave Cox, R-Roseville, among its supporters.
Cox's vast 1st Senate District takes in many Sierra communities considered at greatest risk because they are undergoing development in geologic belts where a particularly hazardous form of asbestos known as amphibole occurs. Those areas include Amador and Calaveras counties, the foothills of El Dorado and Placer counties and the city of Folsom in Sacramento County.
Most experts consider the spearlike amphibole fibers hundreds of times more potent in the development of mesothelioma than the better known chrysotile form used in insulation, auto-brake lining and other commercial products.
Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the chest and other body cavities that generally claims its victims within 18 months of diagnosis. As with other asbestos-related disease, mesothelioma develops 20 or more years after the initial exposure to asbestos fibers. Children are especially at risk because of their potentially long life spans.
Ortiz said the asbestos bill aims initially to coordinate what she sees as a hodgepodge of state, local and federal agencies that have been addressing the geologic hazard from different and possibly conflicting angles.
For example, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control addresses naturally occurring asbestos on unpaved roads and at proposed school sites. The state Department of Real Estate has rules for disclosure of the minerals occurrence in property transactions. The California Geologic Survey has guidelines for geologists investigating the hazard on behalf of developers.
Meanwhile, the state Air Resources Board requires special dust controls of builders in the asbestos zones.
And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has stepped in to test for asbestos in the soil and air at schools and parks in El Dorado Hills. Later this month, the EPA and other agencies are expected to release studies of asbestos exposure from everyday activities in western El Dorado County.
The assorted regulatory activities have developed all within the past eight years, spurred by a series of Bee stories that included asbestos tests commissioned by the newspaper. The Ortiz measure cites The Bee investigation in outlining the need for the bill.
Despite all the regulatory attention, Ortiz told the Senate committee, "Greater consideration needs to be given to the broader health risks associated with naturally occurring asbestos in the Sierra foothills. If there was an issue on school property, doesn't it stand to reason that development of surrounding properties may also present health risks to the residents?"
Ortiz recalled the recent EPA investigation of Libby, Mont., where a high percentage of the population has fallen ill or died from asbestos-related diseases. The catastrophe stems from the nearby historic strip-mining of vermiculite that is contaminated with highly toxic fibers closely related to amphibole or tremolite asbestos fibers that builders of homes, roads and schools have been churning up in parts of the Sierra foothills.
"For the people who were exposed to this harmful toxin for many years in Libby, Montana, it is too late to prevent illness," Ortiz said.
"It is imperative for the state of California to take appropriate steps to prevent this kind of senseless harm from coming to our citizens."
About the writer:
The Bee's Chris Bowman can be reached at (916) 321-1069 or firstname.lastname@example.org.