Asbestos Danger: It’s Not Just For Industrial Workers, Anymore

The tragic suffering of the people living in Libby, Montana is well documented. It was thoroughly covered by a series of articles published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer back in 1999 and 2000; more recently, investigative journalist Michael Bowker brought the plight of Libby’s residents to national attention in his book Fatal Deception (Touchstone, 2003). For those who have not yet heard of Libby, the facts are that this small, idyllic little town nestled in the mountains of northwestern Montana was where the W.R. Grace Corporation and others mined serpentine, the most common form of asbestos, for over seventy years. The fibers released by mining operations covered the entire town, and ultimately affected almost everyone, whether they were employed by the mines or not; rates of mesothelioma and asbestosis among the population of Libby are far above national averages.

What people don’t realize as that serpentine is a naturally-occurring mineral in many places throughout the world – including California, where serpentine is the official state rock. Recently, reporter Randall Peterson writing in the May/June issue of Mother Jones magazine, revealed that asbestos could be every bit as much of a danger in an upscale bedroom community as it was in the hard-working town of Libby – even when no asbestos-related industry existed. The El Dorado Hills community is located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains on U.S. Highway 50, about 25 miles east of Sacramento.

On the surface, it is an idyllic neighborhood, and since 1990, has been seen as one of the most desirable locations in the state. What the developers failed to tell homebuyers is that the neighborhood was located on top of a large deposit of serpentine asbestos rock. Records made by the California State Division of Mines and Geology show that the existence of serpentine and amphibole asbestos deposits in El Dorado County was known fifty years ago. Late coming residents were nonetheless unaware of the danger until a local resident accidentally discovered an asbestos vein in his backyard. Although the homeowner went to the local newspaper with the story, no action was taken – and construction, including bulldozing and digging activities that stirred up dust, continued unabated. Unfortunately, when the EPA recently attempted to point out the dangers, residents became defensive; local business leaders did their best to downplay the threat, even though testing had shown asbestos fibers were present in virtually all of the hundreds of air samples tested. Presently, most of the residents of El Dorado Hills are in a state of denial; except for a few cursory precautions, little action is being taken to deal with the situation.