Californian health lobby sets sights on state rock

Once upon a time, California's energetic public health lobby concentrated on trying to stop people from smoking, or drinking beer, or from making a daily pilgrimage to their local fast-food restaurant. Now, having presumably run out of other things to ban, they have launched a crusade against a naturally occurring green mineral.

Politicians in Sacramento, the state capital, are on the verge of approving a motion to strip serpentine of its status as California's official "state rock", on the grounds that it can contain chrysotile, a type of asbestos believed to cause an incurable form of cancer called mesothelioma if its dust particles are inhaled.

The move is backed by several well-funded charities and consumer rights groups, who point out that 2,500 Americans die from mesothelioma each year. A motion to "defrock the rock" has already passed the state Senate and is about to be considered by its other house, the Assembly.

"California is health conscious," Gloria Romero, the Democratic state Senator behind the motion, told reporters this week. "This is not about being anti-rock. But why do we need a rock? 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."

Senator Romero's efforts to downgrade the green mineral have provoked a furious response from historians and geologists. Serpentine was officially designated as the state rock in 1965 as it symbolised California's abundant natural wealth and the forward-thinking spirit of the Gold Rush era. It also had several important industrial applications.

The rock occurs across the Sierra Nevada mountains and has for years been used to make jewellery. It began to be intensively mined during the 1960s, when chrysotile was extracted from it and turned into fire-resistant asbestos, then widely used in construction.

Though asbestos now has a dirty name, geologists claim that serpentine is relatively harmless in its naturally occurring state. Lawmakers are merely vilifying the substance for political ends, they say.

"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," Malcolm Ross, a former employee of the US Geological Survey, told The New York Times.

"If they keep the asbestos issue bubbling, it means money for politicians, money for lawyers and money for scientists to investigate."

John Sullivan, president of the Civil Justice Association of California, said: "I believe that [compensation] lawyers would feel they've struck gold if they can also bring lawsuits over naturally occurring asbestos."

Jon Christensen, an environmental historian at Stanford who is writing a book about serpentine, described the opposition to it as scientifically illiterate. "Serpentine has an incredibly deep, rich history in California," he said. "It is connected to the Gold Rush, earthquakes, plate tectonics, and habitat for California's iconic spring wildflower displays, as well as endangered species."

A campaign against the proposed legislation is now bubbling away on Twitter, where the legislation has been furiously debated under the topic #CASerpentine.

The symbols of state pride

Kool-Aid (Nebraska)

The official soft drink of Nebraska. Adopted since the town of Hastings was the drink mix's birthplace.

Hadrosaurus foulkii (New Jersey)

In 1858 remains of this dinosaur were found in the town of Haddonfield. As the first nearly-complete dinosaur skeleton to be excavated, it became the official state dinosaur.

Jell-O (Utah)

Apparently more Jell-O eaten is eaten per head in Salt Lake City than anywhere else in the US – as good a reason as any for Utah to declare it their official state snack in 2001.

"Do You Realize??" (Oklahoma)

Penned by Oklahoma-band The Flaming Lips, this became the state's official rock song after an online vote.

Toby Green

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