I-Team: UNLV geologists ordered to keep quiet over asbestos | News
LAS VEGAS -- Two UNLV professors say they were intimidated by state health officials who ordered them to keep quiet about evidence of a possible threat to public health.
The initial discovery was made almost five years ago.
A research team that included two UNLV geologists found hints that asbestos deposits might be making people sick, but the findings were kept quiet after state officials threatened to drop the hammer on the researchers.
Was it scientific censorship?
The I-Team put that question to state health officials as part of a week-long project, Nevada's Toxic Threat.
What was uncovered by these researchers could represent a major threat to public health. The evidence, so far, is preliminary but it is being taken seriously by other government entities. While state health officials will only say there is "no risk" from natural asbestos scattered around southern Nevada, they took direct action to stop the information from getting to the public.
"When we get home, we strip off and wash immediately and try to put everything in the laundry, try not to bring it into the house to our families," said Brenda Buck, UNLV geologist.
Buck and her colleague Rod Metcalf are sometimes chided for overdoing it when they slip into their protective suits, but they know the deadly history of asbestos. The two have spent the past few years mapping the location of potentially lethal fibers in southern Nevada and have found it over a wide swath including much of Henderson and Boulder city.
Asbestos fibers cause a range of diseases, including cancers.
"When you breathe asbestos and it gets into your lungs, it is cumulative," Buck said. "It stays there. So every time you are exposed, your exposure is going up and it is cumulative and it stays with you."
In 2012, Buck and Metcalf were preparing to release a paper which revealed a possible link between asbestos and elevated levels of mesothelioma in southern Nevada. The paper was co-written by a team of epidemiologists at the University of Hawaii, but before it was issued, an abstract or synopsis was written and published. That's when the state of Nevada swooped in to stop the research in its tracks.
"I got the cease and desist 36 hours before I was going to get on a plane to go to this Geological Society of America meeting where I was going to present this, and it just scared me," said UNLV geologist Rod Metcalf.
The cease and desist letter came from Nevada Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tracey Green. It ordered the researchers to retract their abstract, stop any other publishing, and to not speak about their findings in public, or they could face legal action. They were also told they could never again access the Nevada Cancer Registry for data.
"It seemed very heavy-handed and no discussion," Metcalf said.
The legal basis for the state action was an agreement signed by the lead investigator epidemiologist Francine Baumann with the University of Hawaii. If the team was to be allowed access to the Nevada Cancer Registry, it had to promise that nothing could be published until the state reviewed and approved it. Even though the abstract was just a summary not a paper, the state considered it a violation of the contract. Baumann says she was shocked.
"I've never seen that public data could be forbidden," Baumann said.
What Baumann and her team had found in the records was a strong indication of environmental exposure. There were 133 cases of death from mesothelioma, an always fatal disease which is caused by asbestos fibers. What stood out is that the number of women who died was three times the national average, the number of younger adults was five times the average. Those numbers told Buck and Metcalf there was natural asbestos somewhere.
"We do have the minerals. They are here," Metcalf said. "We did predict we would find them, and we did."
But when the state issued its cease and desist order, all work stopped. Baumann sent a torrent of messages to state health officials, apologizing for the abstract but pleading that they allow the research to continue and to go public. The answer was no. The cancer registry is public information managed by a public agency, so what issue was so important that the study needed to be shut down? The I-Team met the officials who made the decision, but answers were hard to get.
Tracey Green: "All of our data is public. Our lists are public, so the information is available to the public."
George Knapp: "Except if you say no."
Tracey Green: "We only say no if there has been a disregard or contractual break."
So, what's important is the contract signed by Baumann, the one which says the state has to approve of any report she makes public.
George Knapp: "So it is public information, but it can only be released if you say yes?"
Tracey Green: "No, that is not true."
George Knapp: "You just told me that you review it though."
Tracey Green: "We review it before it is requested to be released. We don't determine whether it will be released or not."
George Knapp: "So in this case, where the cease and desist order was issued, was the problem with the content of the paper or the problem is that they didn't ask for permission to publish that abstract?"
"I would say that everybody is entitled to publish anything. We are a free country. The issue is, if you violate the contract, that it has to be reviewed by the state health officer," said Ihsan Azzam, Nevada state epidemiologist.
But in all of the correspondence that followed, the content of the paper, that is the discussion of a possible link to disease, is the dominant issue raised by the state.
"I think they are trying to use the rule as an excuse for us to not move forward because they don't like the interpretation," Metcalf said.
"I think, what's more important here is, they are putting that ahead of health of the citizens of southern Nevadans," Buck added.
Even though the officials told the I-Team the information is all public, in the next breath they said the records are also confidential. That's why they need to restrict access -- to protect privacy.
The research team says the issue of privacy or confidentiality was never raised and they never revealed any private information. To them it sounds like another excuse for clamping down on their work.
There's another place where the powers that be hid evidence of a health threat from asbestos. They did it in Libby, Montana. The I-Team visited Libby and will have a report on what they found Tuesday night at 5 p.m.