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Air of Controversy


UNLV geology professors Rodney Metcalf and Brenda Buck

Since the Feb. 1 publication of “ Waiting to Inhale,” our story about the most recent developments in the controversy over naturally occurring asbestos in Southern Nevada, the issue has received widespread attention.

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First, the scientists raising concern about levels of asbestos in the soil — and, possibly, the air — around Boulder City published their latest findings in the peer-reviewed Journal of Thoracic Oncology. Titled “ The presence of asbestos in the natural environment is likely related to mesothelioma in young individuals and women from Southern Nevada,” the Feb. 7 paper is coauthored by UNLV geology professors Brenda Buck and Rodney Metcalf, Univeristy of Hawaii epidemiologist Francine Baumann and three other researchers. It concludes that a remarkable percentage of female and under-55 mesothelioma victims suggests that environmental exposure to mineral fibers in Southern Nevada may be contributing to some of these cases.

The New York Times and Earth magazine picked up the story, focusing not only on the potential health hazards of naturally occurring asbestos in the area, but also on the conflict that arose between the researchers and the Nevada State Health Department, which in 2012 accused Baumann of violating the terms of her access to sensitive cancer data. State health director Tracey Green used the violation as grounds to ban Baumann — and, by association, Buck and Metcalf — from further accessing the data.

On Wednesday, Feb. 11, Buck and Metcalf spoke on KNPR’s State of Nevada about the potential risks faced by construction workers on public projects that involve outdoor excavation in the Boulder City area, such as the Boulder Dam bypass for State Route 95 and the planned Interstate 11. This morning, on the same show, Green and Nevada Epidemiologist Ihsan Azzam had their turn, insisting that the state’s rates of mesothelioma are below normal and that public agencies are monitoring projects to mitigate any potential risk.

Clearly, the controversy isn’t over — supporting Buck and Metcalf’s argument that further study, and more transparent dialogue, are needed. 

Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.