Scientists confirm asbestos exposure risk in California town

December 20th, 2006

A study which claimed that the soil in a California town was contaminated with asbestos has been confirmed in a second study by the U.S. Geological Survey. The earlier study, conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency in October 2004, found that naturally occurring asbestos fibers in the soil of El Dorado Hills, California had contaminated the air around schoolyards, parks and other areas of the town.

After the EPA study was released, companies in the asbestos industry disputed its findings, leading to the USGS review of its findings. Members of the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (NSSGA) said that the fibers analyzed in the EPA study did not meet the industry standard for asbestos, meaning that soil in El Dorado Hills was not actually contaminated.

To review the EPA study, scientists from the USGS collected rock and soil samples from around El Dorado Hills and re-analyzed asbestos samples that were collected by the EPA. After reviewing these samples, the USGS scientists said that although they did not meet the industry’s definition of asbestos, they had the same size, shape and chemical makeup to fall within scientific standards for asbestos.

Mineralogist Gregory Meeker of the USGS says that limiting the standards for identifying asbestos to the industry’s narrow parameters would endanger the health of citizens in El Dorado Hills or anywhere else where naturally occurring asbestos was found. “We don’t equate the commercial definition of asbestos with toxicity,” he says. “It has not been health based. It’s been for the guy who wants to mine a deposit and make a profit at it.”

The EPA investigation found that anyone who engages in everyday activities around the asbestos-laced soil in El Dorado Hills would be exposed to dangerous levels of airborne fibers. When airborne asbestos is inhaled, it can cause mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart. People who are exposed to asbestos for even a few months can develop mesothelioma symptoms.

Because of this, the asbestos in the soil of El Dorado Hills could place its citizens in danger of a mesothelioma diagnosis. But since mesothelioma symptoms may take up to 50 years before they begin to appear, it may be several decades before the health consequences of the town’s asbestos-laden soil are fully known.

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