The desert state of Nevada has a longstanding history of mining and tourism. Until 2013, scientists believed that asbestos did not occur naturally in Nevada.
A geological study of the soil and rocks revealed several different types of asbestos. Researchers believe this asbestos material is to blame for the state’s rise in mesothelioma cases among women and younger people.
Several industries exposed workers to the toxic mineral at job sites. Examples include power generation and manufacturing.
Nevada’s industrial companies produced electric machinery. They used asbestos-containing materials to insulate the equipment. Asbestos is also used in construction, a leading Nevada industry that accounted for more than 11.6% of the state’s economy in the 1990s.
The mining and refining of natural resources is another Nevada industry with ties to asbestos exposure. Several Nevada refineries received shipments of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite. The ore came from a mine in Libby, Montana. Workers who handled, processed or shipped vermiculite from Libby got exposed to asbestos fibers.
Asbestos exposure causes mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. The highest incidences of asbestos-related disease occur in the cities of Reno, Las Vegas and Henderson.
Occupations and Job Sites at Risk
While Nevada has no history of mining asbestos, large amounts of the material got shipped in from other states. A primary supplier was the W.R. Grace Mine in Libby, Montana.
Three drywall manufacturers in Nevada processed more than 85,000 tons of contaminated vermiculite ore from the Libby mine:
- U.S. Gypsum Company (Gerlach/Empire, Nevada)
- Pabco Gypsum/Johns Manville (Apex/Las Vegas, Nevada)
- Flintkote Company Gypsum Products Division (Arden/Blue Diamond, Nevada)
An unnamed refinery in Overton also received contaminated vermiculite from Libby. When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) visited these four sites, they found less than 1% asbestos in the air and soil. The EPA determined that cleanup efforts were not needed.
Construction workers have faced numerous asbestos-related health threats in Nevada. Many of the state’s historic hotels and casinos were built with asbestos-containing materials. Workers responsible for the repair and maintenance often inhaled asbestos fibers. They got released from construction materials such as fiberboard, tiles and roof shingles.
Chemical plants in Nevada are also known for exposing workers to asbestos. The former Montrose Chemical Corporation and Stauffer Management Company sites were both found to be contaminated with asbestos.
Other industrial sites where asbestos exposure may have occurred include:
- Atomic Energy Commission
- Atomic Test Site
- Laughlin Air Force Base
- Blue Diamond Sheet Rock
- Clark County Power House
- Nevada Energy
- Nevada Power Company
- Southern Nevada Public Service
- Southern Pacific Company
- Union Pacific System
- Valmy Powerhouse
Asbestos Waste in Landfill
In 2008, the owners of Sunrise Mountain Landfill paid $1 million for violating the Clean Water Act. Renovations to the Clark County facility exceeding $36 million were also ordered to correct hazardous waste discharges of up to 14 million pounds each year.
In 2007, state and federal agencies launched an investigation at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Remodeling procedures may have exposed workers and casino patrons to airborne asbestos dust.
Harrah’s Casinos also have a history of asbestos scandals. For example, the casino paid $6,930 in fines for 12 serious asbestos violations in 2006. It failed to provide workers with proper protective gear while removing asbestos.
Other Nevada hotels and casinos where asbestos exposure occurred include:
- Bally’s Casino
- Binion’s Horseshoe
- Caesar’s Palace
- Landmark Hotel and Casino
- Las Vegas Hilton
- Las Vegas Sands
- Tam O’Shanter Motel
- Vagabond Inn
As many as 32 Las Vegas casinos filed paperwork for asbestos projects with the Clark County Department of Air Quality Management in 2003.
Environmental Areas at Risk
The Soil Science Society of America was the first to document naturally occurring asbestos in Clark County, Nevada, in its 2013 study.
Several types of amphibole asbestos, including actinolite, winchite and magnesioriebeckite, occur in Mohave County, Arizona. It is next to Clark County. These asbestos fibers formed in Miocene plutonic rock. This is unusual because asbestos usually forms in ultramafic rock.
Researchers tested soil and rock in Clark County and found asbestos in all 43 samples taken. The asbestos was 85 percent actinolite asbestos. Some samples contained magnesiohornblende, which is a fibrous asbestiform mineral.
Based on the samples taken, researchers estimated that asbestos is present in the surrounding 53,000 acres. The size and shape of the fibers make them easy to inhale and potentially carcinogenic.
High Rate of Mesothelioma in Clark and Nye Counties
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Thoracic Oncology revealed higher-than-normal rates of mesothelioma among women and younger people in Nevada’s Clark and Nye counties. Researchers suggest Nevada’s naturally occurring asbestos is responsible.
Another 2015 study of asbestos in Nevada, presented during an American Geophysical Union meeting, reported that winds are transporting asbestos fibers into densely populated areas. Researchers determined that Boulder City and the Las Vegas metropolitan area, with more than 1.9 million people, are at risk of asbestos exposure, especially on windy days.