Friday, July 2, 2010

Something Doesn't Feel Right About This: The Serpentine Issue in California

The more I read about this, the more disturbed I become. Andrew Alden gets right to the point about the very strange goings-on in the California legislature while they avoid working out the state budget. Senate Bill 624 would remove serpentine as the California State Rock, and declare in effect that serpentine is a dangerous mineral. The declaration could very well be legally binding, possibly leading to lawsuits for anyone who uses serpentine as a building stone or a classroom sample. For a short bill, it is full of inaccuracies and misstatements of fact. I wrote about this the other day, and as I have learned more, I am concerned that we are being conned in the name of a tragic disease. Somebody may be making an underhanded political move with the intention of making a lot of money. If this isn't true, the parties are welcome to respond.

First off, read the bill and the related analyses. It won't take long. Read some analysis by people who actually know something about minerals. Look at the official list of supporters:

Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization
Belkin International, Inc.
Children's Hospital Los Angeles
City of Manhattan Beach
Consumer Attorneys of California
Environmental Information Association
International Brotherhood of Ironworkers Local 433
International Union of Operating Engineers
The John McNamara Foundation
Kazan, McClain, Lyons, Greenwood & Harley
Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation
Veterans of America
Water, Kraus & Paul Attorneys and Counselors
13 individuals

Organizations related to disease I could understand. But why are lawyers on this list? Why is there no analysis from the California Geological Survey? Why haven't geologists been consulted? Or teachers?

The analysis changes the subject at the end of a paragraph which in effect implicates chrysotile asbestos as the 'bad' kind of asbestos when it is not:
...Once asbestos has been made into an insulating form, it will not necessarily release fibers into the air unless it is disturbed. Amphibole serpentine is another type of asbestos which is commonly associated with detrimental health effects including cancer and asbestosis.

Asbestos has a long history of being hazardous to human health. During the 1st century AD, Greek and Roman populations observed that slaves responsible for weaving textiles containing asbestos fibers often demonstrated pulmonary illnesses...

It comes down to this. Serpentine is a unique mineral (and rock, serpentinite) that is uniquely Californian. It has a crystalline form that is called asbestos, but this particular form is not the one that is clearly linked to mesothelioma and other diseases. Large numbers of endemic species live on serpentine soils. Serpentine is related to the rocks that hosted the gold that made California a state. It is an appropriate state symbol. And now, someone is hijacking the state designation for reasons I find suspicious.

If organizations really are concerned about educating the public about asbestos and mesothelioma, why make the state rock go away? If we keep serpentine as the state rock, and I think we should, every child doing a report on the state symbols is going to learn about asbestos and the effects it has. And that serpentine is not the actual disease-causing form.

Something is really wrong here...please consider contacting your state assemblyperson. Because this very badly written bill passed the State Senate unanimously on June 25th (correction, passed May 18th, it is now moving through the Assembly). It's almost a law.

And someone who knows about these things: how does one get on the list as opposing this bill officially? The people in the Assembly need to know that there is opposition.


C W Magee said...

If it goes through, they deserve to have the creeping segment rupture.

Except, of course, the issue that Sacremento is nowhere near the fault.

Silver Fox said...

Maybe the state thinks it can sue its way to financial solvency?

Randy Adsit said...

The "" web page had a sidebar with links to news articles. My favorite is a letter to the editor of the Sacramento Bee:
"Here's an idea for Sen. Romero: amend your bill to make the Legislature the new state vegetable, because it is so adept at vegetating (a dull, passive, unthinking existence), but little else."
– Robert A. Dell'Agostino, Sacramento

Chris R said...

I'm glad to see some fuss being kicked up about this silly bill. Although don't discount the possibility that this is being driven by simple ignorance, coupled with the thought of winning cheap political points with a constituency they think matters.

However, whilst not denying that serpentine is an important part of California's past and current geological history, you're overstating things a little when you say:

Serpentine is a unique mineral (and rock, serpentinite) that is uniquely Californian.

This is not true. It is found associated with old subduction/collision zones in lots of places. I've seen it in Oman and (believe it or not) North Wales. You get outcrops along the entire Alpine-Himalayan belt. Although the association of serpentinite with active tectonics is possibly more uniquely Californian.

Garry Hayes said...

Of course you are right Chris, that's what happens when I write fast and late at night (which is when and how I do all my blogging!). As has been pointed out elsewhere, I get a bit America-centric when I discuss things, like the "100 places" meme a year or two ago. California has vast tracts of serpentine related to several periods of subduction which are better exposed than just about any other state in the U.S., although it is certainly found here and there in other states, especially Washington and Oregon. It is certainly a well-known and exposed rock in other parts of the world. Such sloppiness on my part unfortunately reinforces the idea that bloggers aren't qualified to raise questions the way "real" journalists do, since they don't have rules and standards, so it is a shame that no one is raising questions in media reports. Their main attitude is that it is all a funny side story. Thanks for keeping me honest!

Silver Fox said...

For the U.S., many of the large serpentinite bodies in California are well exposed and easy to fairly easy to get to. I can't say the same for the serpentinite in Oregon (though possibly I've missed well-exposed Oregon serp), and haven't seen the serpentinite in Washington.

Randy Adsit said...

The "Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization" web site states: "We believe that the current California state rock, serpentine, is an insult to our family and the thousands of people who have died from asbestos-related diseases in California."
The statement continues: "This important initiative [SB 624] to remove serpentine as the Californian State Rock, allowing California to demonstrate that the public health of residents are more important than a symbolic rock."
It is impossible to argue with this level of ignorance -- especially since it is clear that their argument is based on emotion, not thought.
Let's just hope that nobody is offended by redwood splinters, or hayfever caused by the golden poppy...

Unknown said...

SERPENTINITE (the rock) contributes much to CA’s plant diversity. Botanists, geologists, and soil scientists from around the world flock to California to study these amazing rock-based biological habitats. 1000s of scientific papers and more than a handful of books have focused on CA’s SERPENTINITES; none proving the ‘erroneous’ claim that CA SERPENTINITE contains harmful asbestos. SERPENTINITE outcrops in CA harbor 12.5% of CA’s endemic plants (i.e. plants found only in CA). This accounts for about 176+ species. It is a remarkably high number given that only 670 plant species are associated with SERPENTINITE in CA, a substrate covering less than 1.5% of the state. These plants provide numerous “teaching and research moments.” Many researchers in CA study rocks, soil, plants, animals, and microbes found on SERPENTINE; these outcrops are model settings for teaching biology from cells to the ecosystem level.
I am shocked at this attempt to de-throne serpentine as CA's 'state rock.' My colleagues and I have dedicated our lives to study these rocks and the rich biological diversity found in habitats overlying these rocks. Most SERPENTINITE contains little to no asbestiform chrysotile and does not pose any significant health risk in its natural state. The fact that chrysotile presents adverse health effects as a reason for removing SERPENTINITE as state rock is as flawed as saying that the Ridge-nosed rattlesnake should be removed as the state reptile of AZ as it is poisonous to humans. The grizzly bear is hazardous to humans too so why is it the state animal? Because we killed it off? UV is clearly more harmful than exposure to SERPENTINITE which contains minimal amounts of chrysotile asbestos, not the tremolite asbestos, which is known to be harmful to health. Health risks, if any, depend on the asbestos type (chrysotile versus tremolite), exposure frequency, and exposure level. All three factors are very low in most SERPENTINITE landscapes around the world, particularly in CA. There are essentially no documented cases of anybody having developed mesothelioma from the casual chrysotile exposure received from naturally-occurring chrysotile found in SERPENTINITE in CA. I urge that SERPENTINITE remains in place as the State Rock. It is part of our natural heritage, one that has served CA well. Clearly, there is more to worry about these days than waste time de-throning a rock!