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Politics, California and serpentine

July 5, 2010, 11:16 PM

Serpentine (as known as serpentinite), the current (and potentially soon-to-be ex-) state rock of California.

This does not have a direct connection to volcanoes, but it sure is about geology and the science in the news. State Senator Gloria Romero of California has sponsored a bill to change the California state rock from serpentine because, as she claims:

"[Serpentine] contains the deadly mineral chrysotile asbestos, a known carcinogen, exposure to which increases the risk of the cancer mesothelioma ... California should not designate a rock known to be toxic to the health of its residents as the state's official rock."

For one, asbestos is not a mineral - neither is serpentine (thus its place as "state rock"). Serpentine is a group of minerals, one of which is chrysotile, the most common component in the industrial material known as asbestos. Chrysotile is a mineral, part of the sheet silicate minerals. It can form crystals as thin fibers - known as asbestiform - that, if inhaled, can get lodged in the lungs. Asbestiform minerals are very good insulators, so it was used as an insulator on pipes and walls, along with being used for tiles, both inside and out (heck, my house has asbestos tiling). The asbestiform crocidolite is what is most carcinogenic - and it is exceedingly rare in terms of the overall use of asbestos in building (< 4%) - and is only dangerous when the asbestos is disturbed and can be inhaled.

This is not to say that you should play with asbestos materials loose-and-fancy-free - and this is not to belittle people who have had the misfortune to run into the deadlier forms of asbestos. However, much of the asbestiform minerals in the world is close to harmless, but we have been convinced that any contact with asbestos is deadly (mining asbestos, on the other hand, is very dangerous.) However, to lump all serpentine in with the exceedingly rare form that is carcinogenic is downright wrong - not only is it misleading about the true nature of the asbestos problem, but it is also not backed in science. Serpentine is a group of minerals that rarely forms crocidolite, which if inhaled, can be carcinogenic, yet Sen. Romero deems it necessary, with the problems facing California, to single out this "problem" to be solved. The California state flag has the Grizzly Bear and grizzlies have killed many people - should they change that, too?

Serpentine is an important symbol of California mineralogical riches, along with a large portion of the geologic underpinnings of parts of the state. It deserves to keep its place as the state rock and Sen. Romero should stop using ill-founded use of science to forward her own image in the media.


Politics, California and se...

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