- Associated Press - Thursday, July 15, 2010

SACRAMENTO (AP) | In 1965, California lawmakers named serpentine the state rock because it symbolized the Gold Rush years and contained a mineral being put to myriad industrial uses.

Nearly half a century later, attitudes toward that mineral - asbestos - have changed, and one state lawmaker wants serpentine stripped of its status.

Health authorities say asbestos, which is no longer mined in the U.S., can cause an incurable cancer called mesothelioma as well as other diseases when its fibers are inhaled.

“This is a question of health and public awareness,” said Democratic state Sen. Gloria Romero of Los Angeles, who proposed the bill. “We know that California has the highest rates of mesothelioma deaths in the nation and we don’t think it’s appropriate to be celebrating as the state rock something which contains asbestos.”

Mrs. Romero’s proposal to remove serpentinite, as the jade-green rock is formally known, as the state rock has hit a wall of opposition from geologists and industry advocates. Contending the rock is being unfairly maligned, they have started a social-media crusade on Twitter and blogs to stop the proposal.

“The rock is an ideal symbol for our state,” said Garry Hayes, a Modesto Community College geology teacher who was among the first to protest the bill online. “The asbestos issue is there, but it’s a small part of what serpentine is.”

Some opponents have accused trial lawyers of pushing Mrs. Romero’s plan so they can pursue a whole new type of lawsuit by plaintiffs alleging their health was damaged when they were exposed to naturally occurring asbestos in serpentine found on property throughout the Sierra Nevada foothills and 42 of California’s 58 counties.

Serpentine is found throughout the country but is particularly plentiful in the same places where gold was found in California. In the 1960s, it was increasingly mined for its asbestos that often was used in construction.

The rock was crushed or broken to release the asbestos minerals’ durable and fire-resistant fibers, which were used in household appliances, construction materials and other goods.

Lawmakers hoped the designation would help expand the then-$6 million California asbestos industry.

Just how big of a problem the rock poses today is being debated. Geologists say not all serpentine rocks contain asbestos, and chrysotile, the type found most frequently, is not as dangerous as other types.

The World Health Organization has said that all types of asbestos, including those in the air from natural sources, cause cancer. But the Environmental Protection Agency says naturally occurring asbestos that remains undisturbed in the ground presents no risk.

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