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Questions linger about asbestos; scientists say more study needed

About 150 residents packed the Boulder City Library on Tuesday night to hear another presentation about the naturally occurring asbestos discovered in Boulder City nearly two years ago.

The discovery by UNLV geologists Brenda Buck and Rodney Metcalf pumped the brakes on construction of the Boulder City bypass, the first part of the future Interstate 11 that will eventually link Las Vegas to Phoenix.

After the discovery of naturally occurring asbestos, the Nevada Department of Transportation and the Regional Transportation Commission, the two lead agencies overseeing the 15-mile project, ran more than 600 tests to determine the severity of the asbestos.

Their findings showed that the asbestos was in minimal concentrations, they said, and representatives said they don’t see it posing a serious threat.

But Buck and Metcalf, along with David Berry of the Environmental Protection Agency, presented their research and other previous studies to the crowd, and answered some questions afterward.

The biggest question, it seemed, was determining how much asbestos exposure can lead to mesothelioma and lung cancer. It’s a question that went unanswered, because there is no specific data to determine that number, the professors said.

Of those who died from mesothelioma in Clark County, Metcalf said they and the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health agreed that they were unsure of where they were exposed to the asbestos fibers.

In some cases, it takes mesothelioma up to 40 years to show its effects, which makes it difficult to determine where exposure occurred, they said.

“This is a town with a lot of retirees. People could’ve been exposed and moved here, but the opposite’s true, too,” Metcalf said. “People could’ve moved out from here. More study is needed. If we don’t know how people got mesothelioma, we need to find that out.”

Still, the scientists were more concerned with the noncancerous diseases that can come with asbestos exposure, including asbestosis and other forms of lung disease.

“Once the fibers are inhaled into the lung, they remain in the lung,” Berry told the audience.

Tony Illia, spokesman for the transportation department, said the agencies have not taken the asbestos discovery lightly.

“Anyone that steps onto our site has to undergo a mandatory three-hour asbestos training class,” Illia said. “Every single vehicle that enters and exits goes through this wash rack, like a high-pressure car wash for the under carriage of the vehicle.”

Illia added that 12 asbestos monitors are sampling the air quality around the 15-mile project, and individual samples from those working on the project are sent to a lab in Phoenix every day for analysis.

Illia said the contractors can get fined in the tens of thousands of dollars for failing to follow through with the asbestos testing as per their contracts.

Resident Dee Cooney said she was glad to see the agencies taking the precautions to ensure that exposure was kept to a minimum, but she was still looking for more answers.

“I think we need a lot more research done on it,” she said. “I’m glad they are doing something about it, and yes I’m concerned. I just want to find out more.”

Chuck Cascioppo, who’s lived in Boulder City since 1981, discredited the town hall meeting as a scare tactic to frighten Boulder City residents.

“Is there a problem of people dying out here that you bring this and put it on the news to scare everybody?” Cascioppo asked the professors after the presentation.

Cascioppo, who’s worked in construction previously, said he wasn’t worried about environmental exposure.

“The house I moved into in ’81 has asbestos tiles on it, and I stuck with it,” he said. “I think it’s a all a bunch of crap for another government agency to spend more money to waste instead of build.”

NDOT and the RTC have published all of their naturally occurring asbestos findings online at www.bouldercitybypass.com.

Contact reporter Steven Slivka at sslivka@bouldercityreview.com or at 702-586-9401. Follow @StevenSlivka on Twitter.

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