Every state has its state bird, state flower, and state flag. Only California has a state rock, serpentine, and lately the choice is coming under fire from such various sources as California’s State Geologist, John Parish, and State Senator Gloria Romero, a Democrat representing East Los Angeles.
Activists agree the choice was a poor one, because one of the minerals in serpentine – a shiny, greenish rock that glitters like gold – is asbestos, and asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma, a form of slow-acting but ultimately deadly cancer that commonly attacks the lungs.
When serpentine gets broken or crushed, whether by a pickaxe during gold mining or by a hydraulic excavator to create a new housing development, the result is asbestos fibers freed into the environment to drift on air currents and, eventually, get inhaled or ingested by humans (and other mammals).
Once inside the body, the fibers, each about 100 times narrower than a human hair, lodge in mesothelial linings that surround and protect internal organs like the heart, lungs, stomach and large intestine. This leads to irritation, then lesions, and finally malignant tumors which lie dormant for decades before exploding into a form of cancer that is swift, lethal, painful and incurable. By the time most patients are diagnosed, the only prognosis doctors can legitimately offer is about a year to live.
Of course, before asbestos acquired its bad rap as a carcinogen, and health officials became aware of its potential for causing incurable diseases like asbestosis and malignant mesothelioma, the mineral was viewed as something of a miracle fiber. Not only is it a superb insulator, but it is highly resistant to chemical degradation.
None of which really makes up for asbestos’ insidious potential as one of the “silent killer” diseases, and Romero has taken this danger to heart, introducing Senate Bill 624 (SB624), which would remove serpentine from the list of representative items (the golden poppy, the California Valley quail, the Grizzly bear and the golden trout) that identify and glorify the Golden State.
SB624 has already won blanket approval the State Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee, and from Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization founder and CEO Linda Reinstein, whose advocacy is a tribute to her husband’s death, in 2003, from mesothelioma.
Even though mesothelioma is a fairly rare disease, about 2,500 people die from it each year in the United States. Asbestos diseases in general, including mesothelioma, asbestosis, and small- and large-cell lung and digestive system cancers, claim a full 10,000 lives every year, or about one out of every 31,000 individuals.
Serpentine thus becomes less a public relations issue than a grievous reminder to individuals diagnosed with asbestos disease, and those who love them – a reminder that looms ever larger as California mining and health officials determine that much of the Sierra Nevada range, with its roughly 50,000 open pit mines abandoned during and after the 1848 Gold Rush, is a toxic asbestos legacy spread in the dust raised by thousands of RVs and ATVs as tourists travel around the state’s Sierra Nevada recreational sites and trails.
Serpentine is also prevalent in the Pacific Coast Range of mountains, another popular tourist venue, and the danger rises exponentially as both areas experience record building booms only slightly deflated by the burst housing bubble and subsequent recession.
Besides, according to SFGate, Reinstein noted, California doesn’t need serpentine rock to identify the state and promote tourism. It already has gold, and a new gold rush, inspired by the aforementioned recession, has resulted in an increase in placer mining claims, from October of 2007 to September of 2008, that nearly doubled the 1,986 claims filed in 2006.