I-Team: Ex-officer suffers ill effects of asbestos | News
LAS VEGAS -- Public health officials in Nevada haven't always been candid about possible risks.
Decades ago, people were told that fallout from above ground nuclear tests was not causing disease, and the state was slow to react to reports about secondhand smoking.
High-ranking health officials have assured people in recent years that there is nothing to fear from naturally-occurring asbestos in the southern Nevada rocks, soil, and air, but new research is casting considerable doubt on that viewpoint.
There's a lot of gray area between "no risk" on one hand and "public panic" on the other.
The study that found asbestos deposits is largely the work of just three people, and they could use some help.
Picturesque Libby, Montana is finally bouncing back from its unwelcome status as the asbestos capital of the country. The air is clean. Teams are monitoring the water. The sick are being treated. If not for Libbys' familiarity with the effects of asbestos, things could be much different for a former Las Vegas man.
"I lived in Boulder City for eight years," said Tom Chasey, a former officer with Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
He lived in Boulder City and then Henderson and spent much of his off duty time in dust.
"I was into ATV's, off-roading, biking, a little bit of everything in the outdoors desert area," Chasey said. "I did a lot of riding around the dry lake bed and then south of that area."
His Henderson home was on the edge of the desert and would get blasted with dust. When he started having breathing problems, doctors chalked it up to his smoking habit.
"They blew it off as strictly as being COPD [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease]," Chasey said.
It wasn't until he moved to Libby, Montana that he got the straight story. Doctors at CARD [Center for Asbestos Related Diseases] told him his lungs were scarred from asbestos exposure, most likely from the dust.
George Knapp: "Do you remember doctors down here asking about asbestos exposure?"
Tom Chasey: "No, I was never asked."
George Knapp: "If you hadn't moved to Libby, you would never know the cause."
Tom Chasey: "No, I would have never. I would have never been diagnosed. I have no doubt."
There are crystalline fibers lodged in Chasey's lungs. The fibers mean every day is a struggle for him to breathe, and his doctors have told him his lungs will likely become cancerous soon.
As Nevada grapples with the scope of health effects from asbestos, the lesson is clear. Doctors here are not looking for it.
"If you are in general practice of medicine, you are not very likely to know much about it," said Dr. Brad Black, Libby asbestos expert. "You really need to know if somebody has been exposed, otherwise you can diagnose another condition because the findings are many times non-specific.
"I hear comments like, it's really safe, that really bothers me," UNLV geologist Rod Metcalf said.
Metcalf and fellow geologist Brenda Buck are part of the team that found the asbestos deposits and proposed a possible link to mesothelioma deaths. They suspect the true impact of asbestos exposure could be much larger but local doctors do not ask about asbestos when evaluating patients, and even if they did, patients don't know they've been exposed.
There is no question that asbestos causes mesothelioma but there is a wide range of other diseases that are also linked to asbestos. Just about any organ could be affected, including the heart, lungs, and stomach. If environmental exposure is causing mesothelioma deaths, then the true effects could be many times worse.
"So it's the tip of the iceberg," Buck said. "These are all the other diseases. Ovarian cancer is caused by asbestos, pleural fibrosis, asbestosis, and these other things, depressed immune function, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disease auto immune disease."
"When you have one case of mesothelioma, you have about three cases of lung cancer and you can have other diseases," said Francine Baumann, University of Hawaii epidemiologist.
Baumann's paper about mesothelioma and asbestos got her banned from using the Nevada Cancer Registry. State officials insisted it was because she didn't submit her paper to the state for approval. State officials repeatedly said there is "no risk" from natural asbestos.
They have had to change that tune after another state agency NDOT implemented OSHA standards to protect workers on the Interstate 11 bypass. As a map indicates, that highway will plow right through the heart of asbestos deposits between Boulder City and Henderson and will use explosives and heavy equipment to stir up a lot of dust. The health officials now admit the workers will be at risk after all, but not the public.
George Knapp: "It sort of goes contrary to what you are saying that there is no risk."
Dr. Ihsan Azzam, Nevada state epidemiologist: "The community, please understand me, talking about community and construction workers. Construction workers will have increased risk."
Buck and Metcalf say the distinction is preposterous. They applaud NDOT for implementing measures to protect employees up to OSHA standards, but they note those standards don't eliminate risk for workers or the public. Millions of gallons of water will be sprayed to keep the dust down during construction, but the next day, it will be dry.
"The next ATV that comes around or the next dust storm that comes around is going to pick it back up. It doesn't disappear. It doesn't go away," Buck said.
Dust from the bypass could be carried into the Las Vegas valley because the wind blows in that direction at times. Even more of it could be stirred up if plans carry through for large, high density housing projects in the El Dorado Valley, on the edge of today's gravel pits, an area known for asbestos deposits.
George Knapp: "What would you say to people here?"
Tom Chasey: "Avoid the dust as much as you can and pay attention to where they say this stuff is and don't go there, plain and simple. Or if you do, use a dust mask like the painters do. I know it's not very macho but down the road it could save your life."
According to OSHA, there is no such thing as a safe level of asbestos. The greater the exposure, the greater the risk. The closer a person lives to the deposits, the more they are likely to ingest.