Study Shows Lake Mead Mice Became Sick from Asbestos

Illustration of mesothelioma research

A new study shows that even low doses of asbestos fibers found around the Lake Mead area make mice sick. The study was conducted to understand whether rocks in Boulder City are toxic and cause negative health effects.

The study was undertaken by researchers from Montana State University and University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV). Some of the fibers were extracted from Lake Mead and some from the asbestos Superfund site in Libby, Montana.

“The mice exposed to the asbestos developed autoimmune diseases,” said lead author and University of Montana researcher Dr. Jean Pfau. “Autoimmune diseases connected to asbestos exposure in humans include lupus, scleroderma, and rheumatoid arthritis.”

The longer and thinner the fibers are, the more hazardous they are to human health. The study’s results go against the Nevada Department of Health’s assumption that small doses of asbestos are so small they have no dangerous impact.

The study also revealed differences in the effects of asbestos exposure. The commercial asbestos of Libby is associated with cancers like mesothelioma. On the other hand, the naturally-occurring asbestos of Boulder City and Lake Mead in Southern Nevada are linked to scar tissue developing between the lungs and chest wall, as well as autoimmune diseases.

“That is one of the big findings we have had over the past couple of decades is that there is a huge difference in the health outcomes of commercial asbestos and these needle-like fibers we’re finding in the rocks,” said Dr. Pfau.

“When they’re [asbestos fibers] in the rock, they’re sold. They’re not going to get into air unless you do something to that rock to pry those minerals loose,” said UNLV researcher Dr. Brenda Buck.

“You are possibly breathing them in if you are disturbing a soil that has asbestos in it,” added Dr. Buck. This could include an activity like using off-road vehicles or digging. High winds can also release fibers into the air.

“The thing is that these fibers are so tiny that you can’t see them when they’re in the air,” said Dr. Pfau. “So you don’t know if you’re breathing them in or not, unless we actually measure the air.”

Much research has been done concerning mesothelioma. However, further research needs to be conducted on how much asbestos people are breathing in around the desert, especially concerning which activities and areas are most likely to result in exposure. More work also needs to be funded regarding whether Boulder City has seen an increase in autoimmune diseases.

According to Dr. Pfau, “That’s why this study I think is important is in bringing attention to this and awareness so that physicians start asking those questions.”