A huge cloud of construction dust blowing across the field where his son played Little League signaled to Lance McMahan it was time to get...
EL DORADO HILLS, Calif. — A huge cloud of construction dust blowing across the field where his son played Little League signaled to Lance McMahan it was time to get out of this fast-growing suburb above Sacramento.
Watching from a lawn chair as bulldozers reshaped a nearby hillside into another setting for high-priced homes, McMahan knew that the ground getting torn up and carried by the wind over the baseball diamond contained natural veins of asbestos.
“That was like the last straw,” said McMahan, recalling the day six years ago when he decided his family’s health was more important than staying in their foothills home of five years.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently confirmed the fears of McMahan and many other people in El Dorado Hills, but also created a dust-up over property values and the pace of development in this wealthy community of 31,000 residents, where the median home price is about $566,000.
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In tests completed last October, the agency found elevated levels of a naturally occurring but particularly dangerous type of asbestos fiber at playing fields, a popular bike trail and a playground for toddlers. But the agency has not been able to quantify the risk to residents.
“It’s bad; we just don’t know how bad,” said Jere Johnson, EPA’s assessment manager for the site.
While the findings have led some to consider leaving, most residents are staying put for now. Some are angry at the EPA for singling out their community without explaining the chances of getting cancer from inhaling invisible airborne asbestos fibers, leading to finger pointing and charges of fear mongering.
“We’re not concerned about it,” said Tom Ellenburg, who lives in a neighborhood near where the testing was done. “We don’t sit around and breathe asbestos dust. We could go out in the street and dig around in it and sniff it up, but we don’t do that.”
Danger from asbestos has lurked over communities worldwide for generations, largely as a byproduct of mining or industry. It was once widely used in many household products, including home insulation.
If inhaled, the needlelike asbestos fibers can cause life-threatening asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma, an incurable cancer of the chest lining.
Asbestos is found in 44 of California’s 58 counties, usually in serpentine, the state rock. In its natural form it’s considered harmless unless disturbed.
But the situation in El Dorado Hills is considered a greater threat by the EPA because a more toxic form of asbestos, tremolite, is present and can be found close to the surface or even exposed.
Because it can take 20 to 40 years to develop an asbestos-related ailment, children are at a higher risk of exposure during their lifetime. In El Dorado Hills, a community planned a little more than a quarter-century ago, that fact has been greeted with gallows humor.
Middle-aged residents joke that they needn’t worry: They’ll be dead before any disease is detected. Even their children have displayed a macabre outlook.
Some seniors sported T-shirts last year bearing the slogan, “I survived Oak Ridge High School asbestos,” on the front. The back read, “Or did I?”
Terry Trent, a construction consultant who was the first to draw widespread attention to the problem, offers informal asbestos tours, getting wary looks from homeowners as he combs back tall grass looking for the culprit in the eroded embankments beyond their driveways.
“You can see how flaky this is,” he said as a piece of the silvery white fiber corroded in his hand. “This whole hillside is shot through with tremolite.”
The hill is above the high school and adjacent to the community center.
The EPA’s Superfund unit, charged with cleaning up life-threatening hazardous waste, performed the testing after spending $1.2 million to clean up asbestos on the grounds of Oak Ridge High School.
In October, contractors in white suits and respirators spent a week simulating child’s play to measure exposure. In the name of science, they slid into bases on the ball field, pedaled and jogged along a popular trail, played basketball and soccer, and gardened behind an elementary school.
Compared with areas where no activity took place, cyclists created enough dust to be exposed to up to 43 times more asbestos, baseball stirred up as much as 22 times more asbestos, and soccer kicked up 16 times more asbestos.
While the EPA is confident about its findings, it is working on a way to explain the significance of the numbers.
Dr. Bruce Case, an epidemiology, pathology and occupational health professor at McGill University in Montreal who has studied asbestos for 25 years, said the huge exposure levels during exercise are enough to trigger serious concern.
Levels of tremolite measured by the EPA without any activity were similar to those found in the air of active mining towns in Quebec where blasting went on for a century, Case said.
“Anybody who’s not worried about it is in complete denial. You can certainly say people are going to die and there are going to be increased cases of cancer,” Case said. “I wouldn’t want my family to live there.”
As Vicki Summers, a mother of two, decides how she is going to cope with the intersecting realities of development and asbestos, she is taking several precautions.
She plans to have carpets that can hold asbestos fibers torn out of her house. She no longer runs fans. And she only vacuums when her boys aren’t home.
She recently attended a meeting at the community pavilion, where she entered the building past a sign warning: “Tests have determined that this facility contains naturally occurring asbestos.”
During the meeting she scrawled “Should I move?” on a folder and pushed it in front of Gerald Hiatt, an EPA toxicologist.
Summers would not reveal what Hiatt told her, and the EPA is not publicly advising residents what to do.