Leaked Nevada State Emails Downplay I-11 Asbestos Study

Illustration of legal cases for asbestos and mesothelioma

The Las Vegas 8 News I-Team has obtained emails written by Nevada’s Department of Health and Human Services that show contempt for anyone who did not agree with them on asbestos issues, especially concerning the I-11 bypass construction project.

The I-11 bypass project reroutes traffic around Boulder City to prevent vehicles from clogging up Highway 83. It was put on hold in December 2014 when a geology researcher from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV) found trace amounts of asbestos in the area’s soil. Governor Brian Sandoval almost ended the entire project because of the health risks asbestos exposure poses to humans.

The geologists, Dr. Brenda Buck and Dr. Rodney Metcalf, were UNLV professors hired by the Nevada Transportation Department (NDOT) to research if the construction would cause asbestos to become airborne and lead to health problems such as mesothelioma—a type of cancer with an extremely low survival rate.

NDOT spent millions to protect its workers from asbestos and suspended the project for over a year due to the geologists’ findings. Right when the results were discovered, Dr. Buck and Dr. Metcalf published them as soon as possible. However, with no federal regulations regarding naturally occurring asbestos, the state of Nevada gets to decide the outcome.

Dr. Buck and Dr. Rodney were continuing their research requested by NDOT until the state health department gave a cease and desist order stating, as they had from the beginning, that the public has nothing to be concerned about.

“We were surprised that this segment of the state was interested in the asbestos and the other segment, you know, said cease working on it,” said Dr. Buck.

In addition, the duo was forbidden from discussing their findings with the public and was not allowed to access the Nevada Cancer Registry ever again. The high-ranking officials of the state health department have also denied requests for other studies to be completed by UNLV professors.

The emails make distasteful remarks about reporters and the geologists, disregard the governor’s asks, and provide talking points that are not backed by scientific evidence. For example, “When geologists step outside their field… and that engender alarm, panic, and hysteria.”

“We spent over an hour with him… I do not feel more time with Mr. Knapp would be productive,” said Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tracey Green to her boss Mike Willden after he sent her a note that the governor wanted her to follow-up with the reporter George Knapp.

In a follow-up interview, Green stated, “We never said the occupational workers or construction workers would not be at increased risk. We have never said that.”

“But you are saying there is no risk, no increased risk?” asked Knapp.

“To the community,” responded Green.

Another key finding from the email was that when the governor asked for an independent agency to review the geologists’ data, the state health department sought out Dr. Paolo Pinheiro to write a counter idea to natural asbestos being dangerous.

Yet, Dr. Pinheiro has received thousands of dollars in grants from Green’s department. Plus, he’s the official epidemiologist for the Nevada Cancer Registry, which she oversees and forbid the geologists from ever accessing again.

The most recent emails suggest “if he [Dr. Pinheiro] would like to, it needs to be initiated and done by him, not at our request,” wrote Green.