Sunday, July 11, 2010

Wow...If I had a press secretary, would my assemblyperson call me? Update on the serpentine issue in California

The California State Legislature is about to make a mistake that will harm earth science education, and may inadvertently cost the state, counties and individuals millions in unnecessary lawsuits. Through Senate Bill 624, they would remove serpentine as the California state rock. On the face of it, sponsors are saying they are doing this to raise awareness of mesothelioma and lung cancer, due to the fact that some forms of serpentine contain chrysotile asbestos, one of the six forms of asbestos, but not one that is not clearly implicated in causing cancer. On the face of it.

If this is the case, I have two questions:

Why does this bill ALSO include a declarative statement that finds "Serpentine contains the deadly mineral chrysotile asbestos, a known carcinogen, exposure to which increases the risk of the cancer mesothelioma."? Medical researchers and geologists would take issue with the wording. But a lawyer would not. Chrysotile asbestos may be deadly, especially if inhaled in elevated amounts, but chrysotile is not serpentine. It is one component of serpentine, and not the largest component. Read the whole story here, not from the website of advocacy organizations that are big enough to have public relations spokespeople (see below). Call me naive (surprise!) butI am growing to realize that some if them have misleading information (whether by design or ignorance...I don't know...).

2. Why did the sponsor of the bill, State Senator Gloria Romero, use a slick legislative trick to move this bill under the radar? The original bill was about the definitions of anaerobic compost. After the senate unanimously passed the bill, the language was swapped out and replaced by the serpentine language, a completely different bill. Something just reeks here. Something dishonest. A bill that seeks to do what this does should be subject to analysis by geologists, educators, medical researchers, and other experts. It should not have been dictated by the "Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, an anti-asbestos group whose major sponsors are law firms specializing in asbestos litigation". It needs a public airing.

For that reason, I am grateful that Dan Walters, the political columist for the Sacramento Bee has raised the issue (see the column here). I have a great deal of sympathy for those whose lives have been touched by lung cancer and mesothelioma, but for many reasons, this bill would do more damage to their cause in the long run. I have previously discussed my reasons for thinking so (see my open letter to the governor and state legislature here).

What I find most illuminating in this issue are the comments responding to Walter's article. A press secretary for a litigation organization (comment #4)!
Dan, your contention that CAOC's support of SB 624 has anything to do with widening opportunities for lawsuits is outrageous and wrong. Serpentine was made the state rock in 1965 precisely because of its commercial value as an ore from which chrysolite asbestos could be mined. Luther Gibson and Pearce Young, who introduced the bill, chose serpentine to show the importance of asbestos to the state economy. The Department of Conservation wrote a letter supporting sepentine as the state rock because it would promote the mining and commercial use of asbestos. CAOC didn't initiate the move to remove serpentine from "state rock" status, but we are happy to sign on in support, because symbols are important--as was clearly felt by the asbestos industry in 1965. But whatever the legislature designated as the state rock has nothing to do with lawsuits over the health effects of asbestos, and shame on you for suggesting it does.

J.G. Preston
Press Secretary, Consumer Attorneys of California
A response about events 45 years ago, and not a word about our present-day understanding of the issue. Simple denial. This is all well and good, but the geoblogosphere's own Andrew Alden has a great response (comment #29):

...JGPreston disingenuously says that SB 624 has nothing to do with asbestos lawsuits. Well fine, then, please lobby for removing the false legislative "finding" in the preamble that serpentine rock, in and of itself, is a carcinogen. And please pledge never to harass a landowner, or the state parks system, with a serpentine lawsuit...
The small group of geologists and educators who are trying to raise awareness of this bill (see Twitter hashtag #CAserpentine, and Looking for Detachment for a good compilation of related articles) have nothing to gain by stopping this legislation. But I have the uncomfortable feeling that large amounts of money are at stake. It's one thing if the debate is honest, transparent and on the level, and quite another if they are trying to gain an advantage by subterfuge. Maybe they are and maybe they aren't. But the argument needs to be in the open.

I most appreciated this comment (#31):

I am an epidemiologist and spent many years hiking California's beautiful serpentine grasslands, so I appreciate both sides of this issue.

In its most recent evaluation, the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans, including chrysotile. Some studies have shown associations between proximity to serpentine soils, which often contain chrysotile, and mesothelioma. So maybe there is a basis for arguing that serpentinite is a toxic thing.

However, I am far from convinced that those possible toxic harms outweigh the wildlife conservation benefits of the serpentine grasslands, which are havens for many rare native species. I am also uncomfortable with politicians making formal comments on science without having transparent consultation with relevant experts (epidemiologists, toxicologists, ecologists and geologists).

Maybe it is time to revisit the rationale for the rock being the state emblem (and correctly calling it "serpentinite" rather than "serpentine"), but these changes and declaration should be done in a transparent and inclusive way, not as a sneaky amendment to an already-passed bill.

Well said. It's time for some open discussion. My own assemblyman, and others that I have contacted don't return my calls. If I had my own press secretary, would they call??
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