What’s behind the California serpentine asbestos debate

When Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) introduced Bill SB 624, which would remove serpentine as the California state rock, she set off a firestorm of debate. Serpentine (Serpentinite) is a rock composed of one or more serpentine group minerals. Serpentine can also sometimes contain chrysotile asbestos, which is considered a human carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Can serpentine, or more precisely the asbestos it contains, cause asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma cancer, as the bill’s sponsor argue? Or is serpentine a benign and geologically important rock with no links to cancer, as the rock’s defenders argue? The debate is playing out across Twitter (where the discussion is tracked under the hashtag #CAserpentine) and in newspapers and blogs around the world.

Even if the bill is defeated in the California, the debate surrounding it has served to bring a new level of awareness about asbestos exposure and its link to the very real problem of asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma cancer. And it was a very real case of mesothelioma that propelled Romero to introduce bill SB 624 in the first place.

In 2006, Linda Reinstein lost her husband Alan to mesothelioma, a deadly and usually terminal type of cancer whose only known cause is exposure to asbestos.  Soon after, Linda founded the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) to help ban the use of asbestos and promote awareness. Sen. Romero sponsored the “symbolic” bill SB 624 as a way to continue to expand the debate. The bill is still being considered in the California legislature.