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Not in Their Back Yard

When the EPA discovered asbestos in their Little League fields, the residents of idyllic El Dorado Hills rushed to protect themselves—from reality.

The correlation between amphibole asbestos and lung disease has been demonstrated around the world, from Canada to Cyprus, and perhaps most convincingly in the mining town of Libby, Montana, where hundreds of residents have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases and many have died. After reviewing the epa's findings in El Dorado Hills, a Canadian epidemiologist told the Fresno Bee that the area's exposure levels were comparable to those in towns where mining had gone on for a century. "You can certainly say people are going to die, and there are going to be increased cases of cancer," he said. "I wouldn't live there. I wouldn't want my family to live there."

The epa, however, avoided making such dire statements. Its report neither specified how toxic the samples were nor quantified the health risk to the residents of El Dorado Hills. Rather, it simply noted that the exposure levels were "of concern." Jere Johnson, who oversaw the study, explained that the agency was trying not to sound alarmist. "We wanted to inform the community without scaring them," she said.

But local officials received the epa's findings almost as a declaration of war on El Dorado Hills and its way of life. Jon Morgan, the director of the county's environmental management department, thundered to a local television station that the tremolite announcement "may unnecessarily scare the living daylights out of every man, woman, and child in El Dorado County and could possibly devastate the county for years to come."

When I visited El Dorado Hills, more than a year after the epa had run its tests, I was told over and over that the biggest threat facing the town was big-government intrusion. "The issue is not asbestos," declared James Sweeney, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. "The issue is the epa." Superintendent Barber said that El Dorado Hills is like any other community in California, "and yet why is it that the epa has decided to focus on only here?" One county supervisor claimed that an epa official had told her he was going to make El Dorado Hills "a poster child for asbestos." "What I heard," town general manager Wayne Lowery said, "is that the Libby, Montana, project is being wrapped up and they have all these employees with training, and they're looking for a place to keep them employed."

What were officials supposed to do with the epa's information, wondered Debbie Manning, the president of the Chamber of Commerce. "Are you just going to make it a ghost town?" There was no need to rush to judgment until all the facts had been determined. "I'm sure you know that asbestos is a complicated issue," she told me, explaining that there had been a locally led effort to get the information out about asbestos. Fortunately, El Dorado Hills is a highly educated community, she said, and you can trust that "with good information, people can make proper decisions."

 

One of those struggling to do just that was Vicki Summers, a 47-year-old mom who said that her chief duty was to protect her two children from "any type of health issues." Surrounded by stuffed animals, she sat on a couch in her spacious living room, her eyes darting as she spoke of the dangers they faced. "Every day in the newspaper, there's something new," she said—chemicals in the water, mad cow disease, bird flu. She often felt overwhelmed, especially when experts said different things. Summers had guzzled green tea for its anticancer benefits until she heard it caused colon cancer. She had gorged on fish during her first pregnancy, thinking it was "brain food," only to be told, while expecting her second child, that mercury could cause brain damage.

The same sort of thing had happened to her dad. When she was a girl, he had made a point of buying margarine because he wanted to protect his family from cholesterol. "And now he's had three strokes," she explained, "and they say it's the plaque buildup from the hydrogenated vegetable oil." So much conflicting information was almost paralyzing. "It would be better to be ignorant," she said, "because then you wouldn't have to be stressed out by all this."

Summers called her home her "dream house," and said she had long considered El Dorado Hills "heaven on Earth," but when she heard about the asbestos, her first thought was, "If this is Love Canal, and there's going to be a mass exodus, I don't want to be the last one out."

But no exodus from El Dorado Hills ever began. Many residents seemed oddly comforted by the apparent uncertainty of the situation. Just after the epa report came out, Summers joined a thousand other citizens in the town gym, looking for answers. There, school superintendent Barber reassured the crowd that the town was "deeply committed to maintaining public health and safety." Then she ripped into the epa report for offering no solid "risk information." She pointed out there had been no abundance of "pulmonary cases" in the area. In other words, with nobody getting sick or dying, there was no real evidence of any hazard, so why worry? "Risk is a part of all of our lives," Barber said. "But we also need to keep it in perspective." She received enthusiastic applause.

Scientists, however, are more certain about the dangers of asbestos. There is no known safe exposure level to asbestos, whether it is in a commercial or a natural form; even low doses can cause malignant mesothelioma, a rare lung cancer. And the evidence keeps mounting. In the summer of 2005, researchers from the University of California-Davis Department of Public Health Sciences announced the findings of a study comparing the addresses of 2,900 Californians suffering from malignant mesothelioma against a geological map of the state. They concluded that the risk of developing lung cancer was directly related to how close the patients had lived to areas of rock associated with naturally occurring tremolite asbestos. (Likewise, the odds of getting mesothelioma drop 1 percent for every mile one moves away from an asbestos source.) As one of the authors explained, "We showed that breathing asbestos in your community is not magically different from breathing asbestos in an industrial setting."

All of this passed over El Dorado Hills like clouds in the blue sky. County supervisor Helen Baumann's reaction to the UC Davis report was that "there are studies counter to that." Local government would "err on the side of public health and safety," she said, "until some better science comes forward."

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