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I-Team: Asbestos fibers found near school, park and homes | News

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I-Team: Asbestos fibers found near school, park and homes

BOULDER CITY, Nev. -- A controversial research project investigating possible health effects from natural asbestos was the hot topic this week at a national science conference in California. 

A paper written, in part, by two Nevada geologists was singled out for praise by other scientists, but this is the same research team that was shut down by the state of Nevada back in 2012.

State health officials accused the team members of violating a contract provision and of trying to scare the public.

Since the state tried to shut them down, the researchers have been busy looking for asbestos and they have found it.

In a way, it is vindication for the geologists. 

Their paper looked at disease rates and it predicted there must be asbestos out there somewhere. After health officials shut them out, they kept quiet, but busy, looking for natural asbestos that would prove their theory was right. They found it, in Boulder City, in Henderson, places where wind and erosion can send those tiny fibers all over southern Nevada.

George Knapp: "What did you find here?"

Brenda Buck, UNLV geologist: "We found actinolite asbestos, a regulated asbestos mineral, and it's in the rock and in the soil."

Buck has become so accustomed to finding asbestos that she can sometimes spot it while driving down the road. Boulder City's Adams Boulevard, in particular, is asbestos central.

"Sometimes you can actually see the structure, the shape of the fibers," Buck said. "Both of these have it. This greenish color is asbestos."

She and her colleague Rod Metcalf confirmed the find in their lab and had a third party review it as well. The long outcropping on Adams Boulevard is a popular place for hiking, biking, and walking dogs. It is right across the street from a neighborhood that gets dusted with asbestos every time the wind blows.

Not too far away, Buck spots something telltale in the landscaping of a public park.

"Here, you can see the granite and it's got green," she said.

 And one block further, she finds more.

"Look at that blue. That is it. That is definitely it," Buck said.

It's a field directly in front of Martha King Elementary School. The rock and soil have high concentrations of actinolite asbestos.

George Knapp: "So, they built this school on ground zero practically?"

Brenda Buck: "Yeah, definitely. It's everywhere and these are the high concentrations, the green."

Asbestos was also found on public property adjacent to a Boulder City horse stable. Buck says she stabled her own horse there for years. She wonders how many fibers are being ingested by riders and their horses, especially when rodeos are held.

"You see little kids just crawling all over this," Buck said. "Breaks my heart now that I know it's here."

INTERACTIVE: Nevada's Toxic Threat

The McCullough Mountains have concentrated asbestos higher up, and the geologists say erosion is likely carrying it down into the El Dorado Valley. On the dry lake bed, which has long been a playground for off-roaders, the frequent dust clouds are loaded with fibers. On the Henderson side of the McCullough Range, there's asbestos around the Nevada State Campus. They also found a lot of it on public lands adjacent to a large housing development, land traversed daily by residents.

George Knapp: "They should know that this is here."

Rod Metcalf: "They should know."

Brenda Buck: "Yeah, they should know."

Rod Metcalf: "They should know, and of course we have just seen two or three ATV's or four-wheel drive vehicles out here, and they just put huge plumes of dust, and if you are the second one of those, or second or third in a train behind the lead vehicle, you're getting pretty well dosed."

The images that haunt them most are back at King Elementary. The I-Team observed over several days as students and locals exposed themselves to asbestos fibers in the field next to the school. Kids hiked down from the school, climbed on the rocks. They stomped on the gravel, skateboarded in the dust, bounced balls and got fibers on their clothes and back packs. Moms with infants rolled their strollers in and around the fiber-filled field.

During one of the I-Team's visits to the school, Buck found rocks that stopped her in her tracks.

"Oh my God, that is so blue. Yikes, generally that blue color is suggestive of the Libby mineral," Buck said.

In Libby, Montana, school kids played on heaping piles of asbestos, the byproduct of a mining operation. Because of the long latency period, they didn't start getting sick until 20 or 30 years later. Hundreds of people in Libby died and thousands developed serious illnesses. State and federal agencies knew of the danger for years, but the public was assured there was no risk.

George Knapp: "So, it is a sense of complacency?"

Dr. Brad Black, Libby asbestos specialist: "False confidence that your agencies were operating, you know, the way they should operate. But at that stage, we didn't understand how politics had so much to do with how agencies worked."

Dr. Tracey Green, Nevada's chief medical officer: "And in this circumstance, we do not see an increased risk to the community."

Nevada health officials have parsed their words carefully, saying the discovery of asbestos in Clark County does not -- by itself -- increase the risk to the public.

George Knapp: "There is no risk. no risk?"

Ihsan Azzam, Nevada state epidemiologist: "The risk for people in southern Nevada and Clark County and in Nevada is not increased, is what I said."

The state epidemiologist notes that the asbestos has been in the ground for thousands of years but hasn't resulted in mass deaths. Libby, Montana had much greater exposure because of a mining operation that freed asbestos into the environment, Azzam notes. 

But would there be higher risk if a large project here disturbed natural asbestos in the ground.

A bypass for Interstate 11 is being built right through some of the asbestos deposits. If not for UNLV geologists, they would have never known about the risks. 

While the health department thinks the risk is low, other agencies see it differently.

Clark County School District did make a comment about the asbestos near Martha King Elementary School. The district was first told about it two years ago. They finally met with researchers last month and say they have no plans to disturb the soil at the school.

Libby, Montana

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