California has long been a leader when it comes to environmental regulation. That’s often something for us Californians to be proud of. But there are times when regulatory fervor tests the bounds of reason. Case in point of late is the skirmish over the state rock, Serpentine (this while California’s unemployment rate stands at 12.3 percent?). The pale green stone, often sold under the name “New Jade,” (it sort of looks like, well, Jade) is popular among jewelry designers because of its beauty, affordability and carvability. In fact, it is the cover story for the August 2010 issue of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist (“Smokin’ Stones: Serpentine and More,” by Sharon Elaine Thompson). Interesting timing when you consider that it’s been under fire this month due to the fact that it sometimes serves as a host to asbestos, a known carcinogen.

Pale green Serpentine makes a pretty pairing with Amethyst and Freshwater Pearls.

Pale green Serpentine makes a pretty pairing with Amethyst and Freshwater Pearls.

DROP THE ROCK

Sponsored by California State Senator Gloria Romero and backed by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), a senate bill (SB624) would topple Serpentine from its status as the state’s top rock, a position it has held since 1965. Opponents of the rock contend that because Serpentine sometimes contains the mineral chrysotile, a form of asbestos, it should not represent health-conscious California as its official rock. Asbestos exposure is linked to diseases such as mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs.

The ADAO argues that its Drop the Rock campaign seeks to promote public health through educating the public about the rock, which, in some of its forms, contains a known carcinogen. The organization’s press release states, “It is not about what serpentine is or is not; it is a question of removing a State-wide symbol that represents a substance that can, in one of its forms, cause irreversible disease and death as it has to thousands of its victims.” So, in essence, the anti-rock effort seems mostly concerned with symbolism.

KEEP OUR ROCK

But geologists and others in California’s scientific community maintain that SB624 is rife with inaccuracies, and may only serve to escalate nuisance lawsuits involving asbestos litigation.  Others worry about the possibilities of land closures in areas where the rock might be lurking. The Civil Justice Association of California officially opposes the bill, which it believes to be based on “bad science.”

Language in the bill declares that, “California should not designate a rock known to be toxic to the health of its residents as the state’s official rock.” But scientists point out this is an erroneous and misleading statement. Says Garry Hayes, who teaches geology at Modesto Junior College, “Serpentine is not toxic. A mineral that is found in the rock, chrysotile, in its asbestos form, has been shown to be dangerous when improperly utilized.” But, he adds, “Almost any rock contains ores that can be dangerous, including the ores that produce gold, our state mineral.”

Similarly, in a July 17 piece for the California North Coast’s Times-Standard, Humboldt State University associate professor of geology, Brandon Schwab notes that overexposure to any mineral can lead to a negative impact on human health. “Quartz is the most common mineral in the Earth’s crust,” he writes, “and inhalation of silica dust can lead to the disease silicosis.”

Schwab concludes, “If the Legislature feels it is important to spend time removing any official state connection to potentially hazardous materials, I would argue that overexposure to the state mammal (Grizzly bear) is more likely to be hazardous than exposure to the state rock.”

The consensus is that while some Serpentine does indeed contain chrysotile asbestos, risks are negligible. Said retired United States Geological Survey geologist Malcolm Ross, in a July 13 New York Times article, “There is no way anyone is going to get bothered by casual exposure to that kind of rock, unless they were breaking it up with a sledgehammer year after year.”

I guess this means no grinding Serpentine up for snuff, but that using a piece of the stone in jewelry design or wearing a pendant made from it is unlikely to present a health hazard. So no need to break out the “Wear at own risk” signs for the next art show. But what will be the fate of the much-maligned rock?

Word is that the State Assembly will vote on the bill on August 2, and Serpentine proponents are urging those in favor of keeping it as the state rock to contact their representatives this week. Also, check out California Serpentine Awareness! Keep our Rock! Fight SB 624 on Face book.

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