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Serpentine Politics

July 6, 2010

Once again, Los Angeles is attacking San Francisco. California State Senator Gloria Romero (East LA) has sponsored a bill (SB 624) that would remove serpentine as California’s state rock. She said:

“This bill is about raising awareness to protect the health of our citizens. Serpentine contains asbestos, a known carcinogen. Toxic materials have no place serving as emblems for the State.”

(Warning: long, nerdy, hopefully accurate science talk ahead.)

Serpentine, common in California and rare elsewhere, was designated as our state rock in 1965. Why? According to the original bill, “It is a host rock for the state’s newest and most rapidly growing mineral industry – asbestos, now bringing in several millions of dollars annually.” (Yet another tidbit I learned this evening — California was the first to designate a state rock.)

Now I know you are thinking, “Hey, I just checked out the GeographCA iPhone app and a huge swath of serpentine (dark green) bisects San Francisco.”

But some clarification is in order — not all serpentine is asbestos. No need to evacuate Potrero and Hunter’s Point. In fact, little serpentine is in asbestos form.

Warning: IANAG (I am not a geologist) but (fortunately?) for you the internet allows me to bring geological prowess directly to you.

  • I always thought asbestos was one particular mineral but it’s the long and fibrous crystal form of several different minerals.
  • Amphiboles and chrysotile serpentine are the two most common types of asbestos — they were considered the miracle minerals of their day given their strength and heat resistance.
  • Asbestos is dangerous in powered form when airborne. Some consider chrysotile asbestos “safer” than amphiboles. Others disagree.
  • There are 20 “blends” of serpentine.  The most common types of serpentine — antigorite (hard, dark green) and lizardite (scaly and whiteish) — are safe.
  • Chrysotile is sometime found as veins within serpentine deposits.

Electron scans show the difference.

(Images via Geology of the Golden Gate Headlands and University of Arizona)

So not all serpentine is asbestos. Lounge of the Lab Lemming summarizes the imprecision of the bill:

  • There are 20 forms of serpentine, only one of which is an asbestos mineral.
  • The very dangerous amphibole asbestos minerals specifically mentioned in the bill are completely unrelated to serpentine.
  • Safety disclaimer: The inhalation of ANY rock dust is harmful to the lungs. Asbestos dust is particularly dangerous. Do not breathe rock dust.

I’ve been trying to find a map of the various flavors of serpentine in SF but with little luck. The SF USGS Google Earth layer doesn’t break it down, and neither Wakabayashi’s “Contrasting Settings of Serpentinite Bodies, San Francisco Bay Area” nor the Geology of the Golden Gate Headlands specify the regional makeup. A 100 year old report by the American Philosophical Society breaks down San Francisco’s serpentine by molecule but nothing specific around chrysotile.

There are already regulations on the books — the California EPA recommends that serpentine not be used to surface roads because the potential for asbestos dust but the risk seems to vary by location.

Senator Romero’s well-meaning but imprecise bill and statements have caused controversy amongst California geologists.

Geotripper extends Senator Romero’s overly broad statement to other dangerous state symbols:

California Poppies, our state flower, contain some morphine and codeine, the raw materials for making heroin, an illegal drug. Therefore “This bill is about raising awareness to protect the health of our citizens. California Poppies contain morphine and codeine, illegal drugs. Illegal materials have no place serving as emblems for the State.” Let’s get rid of poppies as our state flower…

Grizzly bears killed hundreds and hundreds of Native Californians and Mexican-Americans in the early history of the state. So… “This bill is about raising awareness to protect the health of our citizens. Grizzly bears contain teeth and claws, known killers of people. Toxic animals have no place serving as emblems for the State.” Let’s eliminate the California Grizzly Bear as our state mammal.

Oh, wait. We did one better: we eliminated the California Grizzly Bear instead. The last one was shot in the 1920’s.

Geotripper concludes:

I do not want to belittle the problem of asbestos, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. These are serious enough issues, but going after serpentine is misguided, and I believe, actually hurting the effort at raising awareness of the connections between the two.

Andrew Alden has more, including the potential legal consequences: (bold emphasize is mine)

As any geologist will testify, there is no such mineral as “chrysotile asbestos”; neither does serpentinite always contain chrysotile, which is not in itself asbestos.

I use the word “testify” because a legislatural finding has legal weight, and the mesothelioma legal industry is both wealthy and running out of legitimate victims to make money from. The old cases of heavy industrial exposure to powdered asbestos are near extinction. New cases will have to come from the far more nebulous situations where people in or near areas of serpentinite will claim damages purely from fear of “asbestos.” This is not at all unlikely. The legislature is about to make a mistake it will regret, and only the lawyers will benefit.

The bill has already passed the CA Senate, but has yet to be approved by the House or the Governor.  (It already has a hashtag of #CAserpentine.)

But if they DO decide to spend time thinking about a new state rock instead of passing a budget, I hereby nominate chert.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. friscolex permalink
    July 7, 2010 9:26 am

    **But if they DO decide to spend time thinking about a new state rock instead of passing a budget, I hereby nominate chert.**

    CHERT ROCKS. Ok, sorry ’bout that…

    I’m certainly a chert fan, and I’d have to put my vote in for the ever-stunning Franciscan Chert, like that found in Glen Canyon, where, incidentally, they just found fox bones!

    • July 12, 2010 12:41 pm

      Sorry, chert is made of quartz, and if fine dust particles of quartz is inhaled it causes silicosis. It actually killed hundreds of miners….

  2. Bob permalink
    July 7, 2010 8:30 pm

    Speaking of inaccurate, Geotripper’s claim about the California Poppy is dead wrong. The California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)is in a separate genus from the opium/breadseed poppy (Papaver somniferum). It contains neither morphine nor codeine. While it reportedly has some mild narcotic effect when smoked, the California Poppy isn’t known to contain any of the narcotic alkaloids found in the opium poppy.

    • July 8, 2010 10:20 am

      Ahh, but you see, this very contradiction makes it a perfect emblem for our state!

      Same goes for bears! So cuddly in stuffed form yet deadly in the wild! (Come to think of it pretty much all mascot animals are deadly. Well, except banana slugs. And cardinal (color or bird)).

    • July 12, 2010 12:39 pm

      Of course, I was making a rhetorical point, but the source I used did mention small amounts of morphine/codeine being present:

      The broader point is that anything can be made a hazard if you think about it hard enough. I think if the sponsors of the bill want to educate the public, there are better, more permanent ways to do it.

  3. Eric permalink
    July 7, 2010 11:19 pm

    well i can mention that Duboce park sits on top of asbestos serpentine rock, the firm that i work for remodeled the center on the west end of the park. The contractor had to take lots of precautions because the rock was “hot” which i guess made the project more difficult than it had to be.

    Going back to the whole state rock… i think if the rock is kinda unique to california even if toxic it should be allowed to remain. At least as a reminder that testing of new products should always be considered in long term outcomes.

    • friscolex permalink
      July 8, 2010 10:47 am

      Unique and beautiful. Guess I’ll just be careful when stumbling upon a nice big vein of CA jade. Thanks for the info.

  4. July 8, 2010 4:42 am

    Shall we have crack cocaine be the state rock?
    I think that state Senators might spend their time and energy dealing with important matters. Take, for example, standardizing portion sizes for double espressos.

    • friscolex permalink
      July 8, 2010 10:47 am

      I would rather favor subsidies for home espresso machines. Takes care of the crack thing and portions in one fell swoop!

  5. July 9, 2010 3:03 pm

    Scienceblogs has the most concise summary I’ve seen.

    There’s a list of serpentine articles at

  6. July 9, 2010 3:07 pm

    Holy crap: according to the Fresno Bee, Senator Romero added the serpentine text AFTER THE BILL WAS VOTED ON.

    The original bill only dealt with composting.

    SB 624 cleared the Senate on a 36-0 vote on May 18, but at that stage it merely defined “anaerobic digestion,” referring to composting. One day later, Romero removed its contents and replaced them with the serpentine provisions, a maneuver commonly used to slip something through with minimal notice.

    Romero’s office says the language originated with the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, an anti-asbestos group whose major sponsors are law firms specializing in asbestos litigation. Asbestos litigators and Consumer Attorneys of California are backing the bill. Eric Bailey, a spokesman for the group, says the bill is a “symbolic measure to correct this historic mistake.”

  7. July 9, 2010 3:42 pm has the progression of the bill.

    On May 18th, the CA Senate voted 36-0 on a composting bill. (And Romero abstained on that vote!)

    On May 19th Romero then changed the text of the bill to the anti-serpentine legislation.

    On June 21 it went to committee and was passed 7-0.

    Romero’s not part of that committee, so between that and the abstention, so she never actually voted on the bill. I’m speechless.

  8. Dave Dennison permalink
    July 10, 2010 2:25 am

    As a slightly younger pup, twenty years ago, I worked for a contractor building houses on Potrero Hill. We dug the foundations through the serpentine and it was generally easy to carve out (not to mention a pretty blue-green). No health issues here (knock on wood).

    Senator Romero is in the pocket of the Chert lobby. I don’t care if I’m blackballed by the geology powers that be. I have to state the truth.

  9. Dennis permalink
    July 13, 2010 2:35 pm

    I will immediately write all of my elected representatives including Pres Obama and Senator Boxer to demand that all serpentine be removed from our state and dumped in Arizona!! We do not have to stand for this threat to our health.

  10. Terry Trent permalink
    July 15, 2010 11:18 pm

    I am a biologist and a research biochemist specializing in natural occurring (NOA) “asbestos” in California. The legislature is a day late (meaning decades late) and a dollar short (meaning, well more) and working on the complete wrong subject. ADAO is not intentionally misleading, but they as a group are misleading. Natural occurring forms of asbestos occur in all states in the ground from soft friable easily airborne to hard rock hard to blow up with dynamite. In California communities have lived on all forms of natural occurring Chrysotile “asbestos” for well over 200 years. Intensive studies of death certificates shows no excess lung cancer or any excess mesothelioma at Chrysotile sites at all. San Francisco is the most contaminated Chrysotile city on earth. Yet small communities in California, inside El Dorado, Amador, Toulomne, who have lived on Tremolite asbestos deposits for only short periods, show large quantities of excess mesothelioma. Not just in humans but in animals too. Huge levels of death from a non serpentine NOA. This news regarding Tremolite was published in the newspapers, mostly front page news, in Sacramento for 8 years straight! What do the legislators do? Why they OK “asbestos” epidemics by refusing to address the problem, and they condemn the innocent serpentine rock without even realizing what they are doing. For those who don’t know, this exact same subject has nearly killed entire communities in the United States. Groups such as ADAO focusing on Chrysotile “asbestos” to the exclusion of the far more dangerous forms of “asbestos” have lead to the communities of Libby Montana and Jefferson Parish Louisiana having enormous non serpentine epidemics of human death. The legislators could actually do something useful here, but not while they are mislead by non scientists such as ADAO.

    Let’s make fibrous Tremolite our State Rock!!

  11. July 17, 2010 10:41 am

    The last commenter works for ChemRisk and is on the payroll of major asbestos manufacturers. Every scientific group that has studied the issue agrees: There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, and all types, including serpentine chrysotile, cause cancer.


  1. Serpentine Politics « Burrito Justice | Welcome2Green
  2. Geology Links for July 7th, 2010 | The Geology News Blog
  3. Doc Searls Weblog · How about just making mesothelioma the state disease?
  4. Seismogenic | Burrito Justice

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