Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Standing on a Rock: Why the California Legislature Needs to Hear From Educators, Students and Scientists

A geologist, a biologist and a pair of lawyers were out in a boat fishing one day. The lawyers were arguing back and forth about a case they were fighting in court. It went on and on. The two scientists looked at one lawyer and then the other, and then at each other, rolled their eyes, and got out of the boat and walked to shore. Right over the water. Without getting wet. The lawyers were astonished. They stopped arguing, and jumped off the boat, intending to walk to shore like the scientists, but landed in water up to their necks. They made it the shore, but were soaked in mud. "How did you stay dry?", they asked the scientists. "We stood on the rocks", came the reply.

O.K., a really bad joke, but its the best I can do on short notice. Senate Bill 624, which is on the floor of the California State Assembly along with several hundred other bills that must be acted on by August 31st, would remove serpentine's standing as the California's state rock. I've mentioned the possible legal consequences of the legislation, but not being a lawyer, I don't really know. The sponsor of the original legislation assures me that the original intent of the bill was not legal. I'm going to take her at her word on this, but the fact is the bill will have deep legal implications whether they were intended or not. How can I know this, if I am not a lawyer?

The answer is pretty straightforward. There are lawyers arguing vociferously about Senate Bill 624. There are lawyers listed in the Assembly analysis as supporting the bill. There are legal organizations who have stated in no uncertain terms that they are opposed. The sponsors of the bill say their sponsorship dates to 2007. I take their word on this. But other lawyer organizations have been pushing this concept from as early as 2004. How could they be interested in whether California has a state rock or not? Really, why would a bunch of lawyers care about a rock? That's the $70 billion dollar question (yes, that's how much is at stake). The answer? Asbestos. Yeah, that stuff, the inflammable stuff that can cause cancer, the subject of tens of thousands of lawsuits across the country. Serpentine is a rock that sometimes contains chrysotile asbestos, one of six different varieties of asbestos (amphibole asbestos is the really dangerous stuff).

I wrote early on about my concerns about how this legislation came about: the tactics looked suspicious, the sponsor list was full of organizations that had a possible financial stake in the legislation, and most importantly, no one in the natural science community was consulted. No geologists, no biologists, no educators; the very people who use the state symbols as part of the educational process. This is the reason that we went public with our objections, and I like to think that this is the reason the story has caught on in the media over the last month (See the Silver Fox compilation of news stories here). And I argue now that the legislature needs to hear in no uncertain terms from the scientists and educators. Why? Because I and the other bloggers who have been raising objections don't have a financial stake in the outcome. Our goal from the start has been education.

I don't like lawyers telling my colleagues in press releases and tweets to "go at it", and I don't like lawyers telling me "to be careful who one associates with". I would prefer that lawyers weren't involved at all. They've got their millions of dollars at stake, and they have dozens, if not hundreds of lobbyists in Sacramento who have the ears of our legislators. I have a few new friends in the blogosphere and some samples of serpentine that I use in a classroom discussion. As a citizen in a democracy, I want to be heard in Sacramento too. It tells me so much that I sent information about serpentine to all 80 assembly members expressing my scientific concerns, offering to answer any questions they might have. I received two form letters in response.

Take your stand on a rock! Time is short. Your voice needs to be heard now, even if you've written before. Call your assembly person first (find who your rep is here), then your senator, and then call the governor. The following is the list I posted a few weeks ago about why serpentine is an appropriate symbol for our state.

Be cordial, we want to educate people who may not know a great deal about geology and biology!

• Serpentine, or more properly serpentinite, is a rock made up of as many as 20 different minerals. It is found in at least 42 of California’s 58 counties, and makes up a significant part of the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode, the Klamath Mountains, and the California Coast Ranges. It is a relatively common rock in California and rare in most other parts of the country.

• The rock is variable in color, ranging from deep jade-green to black or blue. It often displays polished surfaces due to its mode of emplacement along fault zones. The minerals making up serpentine are complex magnesium iron silicates with varying amounts of heavy metals such as chromium, mercury, nickel, and cobalt.

• Serpentinite is derived from the metamorphism (alteration by addition of heat and water) of peridotite and other ultramafic rocks from the Earth’s mantle. As such, serpentinite provides researchers a window into the deep crustal and mantle processes of the planet.

• Serpentinite is often brought to the Earth’s surface by forces related to subduction zones. Subduction occurs when oceanic crust containing ultramafic rock is driven beneath oceanic or continental crust where it is partially melted to form volcanic rock, like that seen in the Cascades volcanoes like Mt. Shasta; or plutonic rock like the granite seen in the Sierra Nevada, the Peninsular Ranges, or the Mojave Desert.

• Serpentinite and related ultramafic rocks have served as an ore for numerous valuable minerals, including chromite, mercury, magnesite, platinum, nickel, and cobalt. Many of these minerals are exceedingly rare, and most must be imported from foreign sources.

• Serpentine is used as a colorful ornamental stone, in sculpture, in carved jewelry, and in buildings. Jade is sometimes found in association with serpentine, and the world’s only source of California’s state gemstone benitoite is a serpentine deposit in the California Coast Ranges.

• Soils developed on serpentine are rich in heavy metals like chromium, nickel, and cobalt, and depleted in essential nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. As a result, plants growing in these soils are highly adapted, and about 10% of California’s endemic species are found in serpentine areas, even though the rock covers only about 1% of the land area of the state.

• Serpentines and related rocks are increasingly viewed as a possible repository for sequestering carbon dioxide (CO2), because these rocks can chemically combine to fix the CO2 in the solid mineral magnesite (magnesium carbonate). Serpentine may thus play an important role in global efforts to control greenhouse emissions and climate change.

• Serpentine was chosen as the state rock of in part to promote a growing asbestos mining industry and to promote serpentine’s use as ornamental stone, but the law itself does not mention these things, and asbestos has not been mined in the state since 2002. The original promoters of serpentine had little knowledge of the educational value of the rock they chose as a state symbol.

For more information about California’s state rock, check out:


And here, as concisely as possible is what is factually wrong with Senate Bill 624:

Summary: Senate Bill 624 seeks to remove serpentine as the state rock of California. The language of the bill includes statements about serpentine that are inaccurate. Some argue that if enacted into law these statements could be legally actionable. This bill has not received the appropriate and necessary scrutiny that is needed to produce scientifically accurate and binding statements of law. Unless there is a transparent and complete investigation of the implications of the language of the bill, the legislature should consider tabling or voting down Senate Bill 624.

The current state rock, serpentine, is not the cause of mesothelioma in the state of California or anywhere else. Serpentine is an interesting and valuable rock that has an important role in education about California history, geology, biology, and environmental science. Chrysotile asbestos is sometimes found in serpentine. It is human use and abuse of asbestos in its many forms that has exposed people to the dangers of the material.

Statements from the bill are shown in bolded text below.

SECTION 1. The Legislature finds and declares the following:

(b) Serpentine contains the deadly mineral chrysotile asbestos, a known carcinogen, exposure to which increases the risk of the cancer mesothelioma.

This statement makes an improper connection between serpentine and mesothelioma. Exposure to serpentine does not cause mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to any of the six forms of asbestos, and the vast majority of cases are related to workplace environments, not natural ones. Chrysotile asbestos is sometimes found in serpentine, but serpentine is not asbestos, and as such, should not be branded a known carcinogen in legislation. The use of the word “deadly” in the legislation is inflammatory.

(c) California has the highest rate of mesothelioma deaths in the nation.

This statement is factually and scientifically incorrect. The rate of mesothelioma deaths in California is 11.0 per million residents, according to the Centers for Disease Control (1999-2005). This number is slightly below the national average of 11.7 per million. In states like Maine, Wyoming, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Washington, the death rate exceeds 20 per million residents. California has the greatest number of deaths, but that is a simple function of having the greatest population of any state.

(d) California should not designate a rock known to be toxic to the health of its residents as the state's official rock.

This statement is factually wrong. Serpentine is not toxic. A mineral that is found in the rock, chrysotile, in its asbestos form, has been shown to be dangerous when improperly utilized. Almost any rock contains ores that can be dangerous, including the ores that produce gold, our state mineral. It is the role of state and national regulatory agencies to identify areas that might contain dangerous minerals, and practices that might expose people to hazards, and regulate those activities. Numerous laws already exist that regulate the exposure of citizens to asbestos materials.

There is an appropriate place for discussing the dangers of asbestos, and how the state can best protect its citizens from dangerous exposure levels. A bill to remove the designation of serpentine as the state rock is not the appropriate venue, and is instead a detriment to proper education about asbestos.

The entire text of SB624 can be found here: http://leginfo.ca.gov/pub/09-10/bill/sen/sb_0601-0650/sb_624_bill_20100623_amended_asm_v96.html

The history, Assembly floor analysis, and current status of SB624 can be found here: http://totalcapitol.com/?bill_id=200920100SB624

The Centers for Disease Control cancer statistics site can be found here: http://wonder.cdc.gov/cancer-v2002.HTML

And there you have it. I am sorry for the long post, but things are coming to a head very soon.


TC McNamara said...

What saddens me is you have done exactly what you accuse others of
doing, giving false facts, I am a native of California, I was married at 16 for over 30 years when my husband a US Navy Vet was taken from me, his five California born and raised daughters his grandsons all from California, we are not proud of this rock my children had never been taught about this rock in our public or private schools, I am not an attorney nor will I benefiit finacially from the rock or its removal. My families loss like so many others is far beyond your scope. We woke up on day to a nightmare that robbed us of our normal plain lives and can affect anyone on of you at any time with no warning. Lets fight to honor a rock that can be masked as another serial killer. Im glad you and your families have time to mock us,
I would give you a mountain of serpintine for 30 seconds again with my husband Im sure his children will agree. Maybe when they finish middle and high schools you can address this with them.

Thanks for the continued effort to bash us, and our US war hero like so many others.

TC McNamara
P.S. If you have a direct line to CDC can you ask them to quit mislabeling deaths to lung cancer and address the actual meso deaths thanks we need your figures to be correct.

Garry Hayes said...

Hello TC. Thank you for responding. If my numbers are wrong, I will correct them, but I drew from government statistics because in many cases theirs are the most objective. Please read my posts on serpentine carefully. I have never attacked the families of cancer victims, and instead, I have the deepest sympathy for them, and for you. I have argued that using the state rock is a teaching tool that can and should be used to further your organizational aims. I encourage you to read a letter I addressed to you on the ADAO website that was posted before any of the press releases, any of the news stories, and any of the media storm, on July 7 (http://www.asbestosdiseaseawareness.org/message-from-tc-mcnamara-in-support-of-sb-624/):

"I want to convey my condolences on the loss of your husband, and to note that I can only understand your loss to the extent that a husband is different from a grandfather. My grandfather died an ugly and painful death from lung cancer, and although he smoked, I strongly suspect asbestos could have had a role in his death, as he was a shipworker in WWI, and he worked in a tile factory for much of his later life.

I also want to say that I agree with the aims of your organization: any company that knew of the dangers of asbestos and failed to protect their employees should be made to pay, and pay dearly. I could never support or condone their actions.

I deeply hope you understand me, then, when I ask you to reconsider this issue of SB 624. I teach geology at a community college in California, and I feel a need to point out some problems with this effort to remove serpentine as the state rock of California. I say this because having serpentine as a state rock could and should be one of the most useful educational tools you could have about asbestos and mesothelioma. I have two points I want to try and convey, and I thank you for reading this far! (the post has exceeded the word limit and is continued in comment #3)

Garry Hayes said...

#1: This effort to remove the designation of serpentine as the state rock will garner attention this one time, and this time only. People will see an article in some corner of the paper, and never again will they hear about mesothelioma and asbestos. But as the state rock, many thousands of school students for decades to come will do reports about the state symbols, and no doubt every one of them will come across the fact that serpentine sometimes contains one of the forms of asbestos, and that asbestos is implicated in diseases. Think of the value of this fact alone in educating the public. Even if the original reason for the designation for the state rock was to promote mining, then think of the irony of using their own PR against them.

#2, and to me the most important reason to reconsider your position: Serpentine is one of the most revealing and fascinating minerals (and rock) that that we can teach about in California. Serpentine is a unique mineral that sometimes has an asbestiform crystal habit, but most often has a beautiful jade-like appearance. The importance of the rock lies in its history: The fact that the source of the rock is deep in the earth’s mantle, beneath the 15-25 mile thick crust, is a revelation and acknowledgement of the incredible forces that have shaped the state. Imagine what it takes to bring masses of rock from such great depths! California has the incredible scenery that it does because of forces of movements along plate boundaries, whether the lateral movements along the San Andreas fault, or the vertical churning that occurs along convergent boundaries, where ocean crust is driven underneath the edge of the continent. Serpentine is found along these boundaries, and it is exposed here better than anywhere else in the United States.

Economically, serpentine is the source for a number of rare minerals: chromite, magnesium, nickel, and mercury. All were mined during the world wars to make armor, flares and triggers, and no doubt helped in the war effort. All of these minerals, especially mercury, can be deadly in their own way, but it is our use and abuse that leads to disease, not their existence in a particular rock.

I was shocked to learn of this effort to remove what I feel is an appropriate symbol of our state, because it should be a tool in your arsenal to educate people about the dangers of asbestos. You should be using this symbol as a cudgel against the companies that abused their workers.

I know this effort is too far gone to be changing or reconsidering your position, but I hope you could understand the position of literally every earth science teacher who has contacted me about this issue (I was the president of the Far Western Section of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers). You are taking away a valuable teaching tool, one that your organization should be using, not throwing away.

In any case, thank you for your time and attention. We are in agreement about what should be done about asbestos, and the companies that abused our trust. But I could not more strongly disagree with your effort in regards to serpentine and the state of California."

TC, I stand by my words of condolence, and offer that we can work together to teach about the dangers of asbestos. We both seek to educate the public about cancer, we just disagree about the best method.

Again, thank you for responding.

Randy A. said...

Garry and everybody else:
To find out who your state assembly person and state senator are, go to: http://www.vote-smart.org/
On the left is a "Find your representative" box. Just enter your zip code (include all 9 digits for more accuracy) and you'll get a page listing all the federal and state elected offices, and who's currently filling those offices. Since it's an election year, you'll also get a list of those running for office.
I urge you to bookmark this web site, since it has tons of useful information!

Phil Davidson said...

On a side topic: I don't think you mean to say that asbestos is inflammable. "Inflammable" means "capable of being inflamed". "Inflammable" is the same as "flammable" -- how strange is the English language! I think you mean "flameproof" or "incombustible".

Garry Hayes said...

Guilty as charged! Lots of flammable language on the issue over the weeks, though.

gerry menezes said...

T.C....your anger is misplaced. Hate the people that placed your husband in harms way. For profit or out of ignorance, the negligent people should pay for your loss and not a rock.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you that scientists should be included in the policy process. I disagree with the idea that geologists know better than public health scientists (e.g. epidemiologists) whether the rock poses a threat to public health. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has concluded that all forms of asbestos, including chrysotile, are carcinogenic. The more open question is whether exposure to serpentine-based soils is a cause for mesothelioma.

I also want to clarify that the way you use "cause", as in, "the cause", is not how most public health specialists use that word. In public health, using the conceptualization by Rothman (other theorists use other definitions), a "cause" is a necessary part of the conditions(a "causal complement") necessary and sufficient for some outcome. An outcome can have multiple causal complements that could have given rise to it, and these causal complements can be made of different things. So stating that "The current state rock, serpentine, is not the cause of mesothelioma in the state of California or anywhere else" is not coherent from my perspective, because it could be A cause or part of A causal complex. Complex diseases such as cancer often have many different possible causal complexes, and it is an open question (with some evidence suggesting a possible relationship) whether serpentine-based soils are related to mesothelioma.

I do think geologists should weigh in on this issue because you have the most knowledge about the physics and processes that gave rise to the rock. And I think ecologists and conservation biologists should weigh in too. But I do not think that geologists, epidemiologists, or ecologists should be speaking too loudly on subject matters outside their expertise.

Garry Hayes said...

Anonymous, thanks for your input. I used the terminology that I did as a response to the wording of the SB624 that seems to insinuate that serpentine is "the" cause of mesothelioma in California. I understand the distinction between "a" and "the", since many factors are involved in causation of cancer. There are some journal articles that report higher disease rates near serpentine exposures, but they do not distinguish between the types of asbestos that are present. Even lawyer sites acknowledge that different forms of asbestos have different potency, though all can cause disease.

In the same way, we have criticized the improper use of "rate" in Section c of the proposed legislation.

You are correct that I am not an expert on disease, but geologists AND epidemiologists and many others SHOULD have had input into this legislation but were not given the opportunity. No one even thought to ask, and only one witness was heard by the Assembly committee that first voted on the bill. That has been one of my points throughout this debate. They should not be passing poorly worded laws with unknown consequences in the crush of the final weeks of the session along with 300 other bills. Not without help from some experts in the disciplines involved.

Thanks again for your note and clarification.

Anonymous said...

Gary -

I am one of the five daughters of John. I understand your reasons for wanting to keep the state rock of CA. However, when a loved one passes for a reason that could have been prevented you would go to the source and make changes worldwide. I welcome you to come explain to my 5 year old why his Papa John isn't here anymore and why he doesn't have any memories of his Papa John as he was to young to remember. Like TC said, I do agree with her and wish that I could have one last moment to hear that my dad loved me. So please understand where we are coming from!

Garry Hayes said...

Thanks for commenting, Anonymous. Please read my older post, and then ask if I understand. I lost my grandfather to lung cancer, possibly asbestos-related, and I missed many chances to hear his stories and understand his life: http://geotripper.blogspot.com/2010/07/it-is-time-for-rational-and-civil.html

Anonymous said...

Who is TC McNamara anyway?
Is, The John McNamara Foundation a legitimate running non-profit from CA ??? Do your research....