The Unseen Problems with Nevada’s Air Quality

by Abigail Wang

For nearly twenty years Nevada, along with parts of Arizona, has been a hot topic of the debate between public health and economic development. The issue has resurfaced again as Brenda Buck and Rodney Metcalf, geologists and professors of geoscience at University of Nevada, push the Nevada Department of Health to implement more protective measures in areas filled with asbestos.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring carcinogenic fiber that damages the lungs. Deposits of asbestos minerals are fairly common and particularly rich veins have been mined for commercial use. The fibers travel easily through and air and if inhaled, even in modest amounts, can embed themselves into the lungs and cause mesothelioma and other respiratory diseases. Mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer, can only be caused by the exposure to asbestos, and it normally takes 30 or more years to recognize symptoms.

After analyzing the dunes and outcroppings of southern Nevada, Buck and Metcalf discovered the landscape was filled with asbestos. Even though asbestos is found in most parts of the country, natural erosion and commercial development in Nevada send these fibers into the wind. After investigating asbestos-related diseases, the geologists worked with epidemiologist Francine Baumann of University of Hawai’i to present a report that found a pattern of mesothelioma in the affected areas of Nevada. However, when the Nevada Department of Health learned of the report, it forced Baumann to withdraw the presentation of her findings and revoked her access to the state cancer registry (Blum 2015). Critics, like state epidemiologist Dr. Ihsan Azzam, argue that the scientists are propagating unnecessary fear about asbestos and the presence of the mineral does not necessarily equate to human exposure and negative health consequences.

Continued research on the fiber has shown that natural asbestos is found from Lake Mead to McCullough Range, in Boulder City, Henderson, Las Vegas, and even in parts of Arizona. Those who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma in these areas are exposed to the same asbestos fibers found in Libby, Montana, where the population has suffered decades of asbestos-related illnesses. Reports have shown that those in the affected Nevada and Arizona areas are as young as 15, suggesting that this unusual rise in cases is linked to environmental exposure to the carcinogenic fibers.

Due to the recent findings, Nevada’s Department of Transportation has delayed construction of a $490 million highway project, and a federal interstate highway connecting Las Vegas and Phoenix may also be put on hold.

Metcalf and Buck have championed for more protective measures, like wearing facemasks in areas of high asbestos concentration and limiting outdoor activities on windy days. Even though representatives of the Nevada Department of Health argue that there is little cause for concern, the department has increased monitoring of the airborne fibers as a precaution.

Blum, Deborah. “In Nevada, a Controversy in the Wind.” NY Times: 9 February 2015.

International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer. “Mesothelioma in Southern Nevada Likely Result of Asbestos in Environment.” ScienceDaily: 10 February 2015.

Kyser, Heidi. “Waiting to Inhale.” Desert Companion: February 2015.

Morell, Casey and Natalie Cullen. “Health Concerns and Highway Expansion Converge in Boulder City.” KNPR News: 11 February 2015.



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