El Dorado County's problem with naturally occurring asbestos dust is much bigger than thought, and there could be huge health implications for citizens on the West Slope if it is not dealt with soon, according to a Southern California geologist.
Dr. Mark Germine, a geologist and medical doctor based in Riverside, Calif., toured asbestos veins in Latrobe and El Dorado Hills recently at the request of a former resident whose family has had health problems.
"I don't want to be an alarmist, but I'd rather be living on a nuclear waste dump than living in certain areas of El Dorado County which contain this tremolite asbestos," said Germine, one of the nation's leading experts on naturally occurring asbestos. "It's only a slight exaggeration to say that the folks out there are swimming in it. I wouldn't set foot out there again without an asbestos mask, and you have people breathing it on a day-to-day basis. It's a really dangerous situation."
Asbestos dust has been a hot topic in recent months in El Dorado County, where the County Board of Supervisors recently vetoed a move to lower acceptable asbestos levels from 5 percent per sample to 1 percent. Some serpentine rock formations, which are found throughout the West Slope, are known to contain tremolite asbestos - fibrous, needlelike particles which have been classified as a carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board. Tremolite asbestos fibers can become airborne when asbestos rock is disturbed by mining operations or other forms of construction. The fibers have been linked to mesothelioma, an inoperable cancer of the membranes lining the lungs.
The subject is controversial here because, among other reasons, two quarry operations would be in danger of going out of business if the asbestos sample levels were reduced from 5 percent to 1 percent. Some contend that there is not enough scientific proof to warrant such a modification.
But Terry Trent, a former Shingle Springs resident who fled to Sacramento due to asbestos dust near his home, says that the danger is real. His father-in-law recently died of lung cancer, and his father was recently diagnosed with malignant lung disease - both cases, he says, which are due to exposure to tremolite asbestos. Neither were smokers.
"My father, who is an electrician, flew in from Phoenix to help me build my house," said Trent, who purchased a lot on Wild Turkey Road in the mid-1980s. "He lived with us for one year as we were digging to put in the foundation and the septic tanks and so on."
Trent's father-in-law, Charles Adams, also helped with the project, and a couple of years later, the house was finished.
Then, in 1997, Adams was diagnosed with malignant lung disease. This stunned the family, due to the fact that Adams didn't smoke.
"Within 12 months, he was gone," Trent said. "We found out that it was the fourth (cancer) death in a one-block area around our home. One man was only 38 years old, and he had also spent about a year digging around his home."
After his father-in-law's death, Trent began researching the subject. He started by learning about the terrain around his home.
"There are enormous tremolite asbestos veins that run on a ridge, and pop up near the house," Trent said. "The veins are five feet wide in some places. It's this beautiful, blue rock; soft, like cotton candy."
While researching the subject on the Internet, Trent found Germine, whose master's thesis in geology had been on the subject of asbestos.
After a series of correspondence, Germine decided to go have a look for himself.
"There is a huge concentration of asbestos in the areas I visited, in Latrobe, El Dorado Hills and Shingle Springs," said Germine. "Included was tremolite asbestos."
How was he so sure? Some skeptics have claimed that there is no real proof of any fibrous tremolite evident anywhere in El Dorado County.
"During my visit I had contracted a slight lung infection, and when I got home I tested myself," said Germine. "I found actual traces of tremolite asbestos in my lungs. And that was just from one day of exposure. Many people have had a lifetime of exposure."
The Trents had earlier abandoned their new house due to the high levels of asbestos detected in the area through CARB testing. They now live in Sacramento. But they are wondering why state, federal and county government are not doing more to ban asbestos in the Sierra foothills.
"Back when this county was sparsely populated, this wasn't a big issue," said CARB Deputy Director of Communications Jerry Martin. "But with the construction boom, it's a hot topic. It will continue to be that way throughout the Sierra foothills, where this rock is found."
First District Supervisor Sam Bradley, who voted for the 1 percent reduction, says that the fight is not over.
"We have a lot of hard fact that all forms of naturally occurring asbestos causes cancer," he said. "It's a real health and safety issue, and I hope that the state can step in and support the citizens of El Dorado County."
CARB is currently pursuing a strategy to do just that - step in and lower the allowable asbestos content, or ban the substance entirely. Miffed that the county did not set their own tough standards, CARB now says it will act. The agency will play host to a public consultation meeting on the issue on Nov. 26 in Sacramento.
But for citizens such as Terry Trent, the damage has already been done. And a 1 percent reduction, he says, is not enough.
"There is little difference between a 5 percent acceptable percentage and a 1 percent level," he said. "A 1 percent exposure to pure tremolite is simply deadly. And a false feeling of security generated by psychological Band-Aids, will indeed kill many people."