Recent sampling from trails and recreation sites along the Sierra Nevada range in California, which runs from Redding in the north to Bakersfield in the south, show extremely high levels of asbestos, arsenic and lead.
This toxic contamination is the legacy of California’s 1848 Gold Rush, which saw hundreds of newcomers from around the nation, and the world, migrating to the Golden State and digging all along the mountain range in search of instant wealth. Some found it; most did not.
Today, California’s gold is tourism, so the finding – based on 80 samples from 11 sites in Foresthill, Downieville and Nevada City – is less than popular. In spite of that, environmental advocacy group, Sierra Fund, feels the information has to reach the public because the greatest hazard – asbestos fibers in the dust along trails and at campsites – can cause serious illness, specifically mesothelioma.
The asbestos stirred up by hikers, campers, bikers, off-roaders and horseback riders is described by Sierra Fund head Elizabeth Martin as the “longest neglected environmental problem” in a state known for its environmental advocacy.
Descriptions aside, asbestos fibers (which are about one hundred times narrower than a human hair) can be inhaled, or ingested by swallowing saliva, and lodge in the protective linings that surround the lungs, heart and abdominal organs.
Once there, the fibers begin to irritate tissues and cause lesions. After a certain period, which can range from 20 to 50 years, the lesions become malignant. At this stage, mesothelioma is both rapidly progressive and highly invasive, producing definitive symptoms which allow doctors to diagnose the disease. Unfortunately, such late-stage diagnosis also leads to very poor prognoses; usually a year to 18 months to live.
There is currently no cure for mesothelioma, and aggressive therapies like surgery, radiation and chemotherapy can provide relief from symptoms like difficulty breathing and pain, but none is regarded as a cure. At best, they may extend lifetimes by a few months; at worst, individuals weakened by progressive mesothelioma are further debilitated and succumb to the therapy.
For California’s tourism industry, which generated a remarkable $97.6 billion in 2008, the presence of asbestos, arsenic and lead in and around 47,000 abandoned mines presents not merely a threat to public safety – worst in the dry months of June, July and August, when most vacationers visit – but the possibility of expensive and time-consuming litigation for cities and counties, since few trails and mine sites are adequately marked as hazardous, and almost none are marked off limits.
This, in spite of the fact that, in July of 2008, an audit by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of the Interior charged the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) with endangering public health by failing to clean up and properly fence abandoned mine sites.
In response, the BLM closed about 50 percent of the Clear Creek Management Area near Westwood and Lake Almanor, in the heart of the northern Sierras. This area, a 31,000-acre off-road wonderland, was – according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – a toxic dump left from former asbestos mining.
In 2009, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided $20 million to the state of California to cleaning up and restricting abandoned mines. The balance, $53 million, will eventually be used to restrict or clean up the other estimated 453,000 mines scattered across the country. Even so, this is only a drop in the bucket compared to the billions mine experts say is needed.
Sources: SFGate.com, UC Davis website