About half of states in the U.S. have official rocks. West Virginia has coal. And California has serpentine .... for now. State Senator, Democrat Gloria Romero of East L.A. has proposed dropping serpentine as the state's official rock because it contains asbestos. The State Senate has approved the bill; it is currently under review in the assembly. Proponents of the law argue that serpentine is a grim reminder of mesthelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos that has resulted in 2,500 annual deaths in the U.S. and therefore the rock is not appropriate to represent California. But others feel strongly about keeping the rock.Many geologists disagree with the bill, saying that asbestos in its natural state is fairly harmless. To the geologists, stripping serpentine of its status will take away from California's rich historic past, as the olive-green rock symbolizes the Gold Rush years. Serpentine was officially named the state rock during the 1960's, when it was also being heavily mined. Garry Hayes, a geology teacher from Modesto, has said that "the rock is an ideal symbol."
California leads the U.S. in asbestos related illness and death. The bill declares that serpentine "has known health effects" and that exposure to chrysotile asbestos increases the risk of cancer. The bill has received support from the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization and the Consumer Attorneys of California. Linda Reinstein, president of the awareness organization, whose husband died of mesothelioma, pointed out that the bill has various supporters, including the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles.
Some serpentine rocks do serve as a host for chrysotile, a form of asbestos. But geologists say chrysotile is less harmful than some other forms of asbestos, and would be a danger only if a person were to breathe its dust repeatedly. Dr. Malcolm Ross a retired geologist from the U.S. Geological Survey told the New York Times, "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."
Some opponents even argue that those in favor of the bill are using the issue as a platform to fortify lawsuits alleging their health was damaged while being exposed to naturally occurring asbestos in serpentine throughout California.
Senator Romero says that proponents are not being anti-rock, but just health conscious. Reinstein was surprised about all of the furor raised by geologists, and said her goal was simply to increase awareness. But on twitter, one scientist warned, "Romero, you picked the wrong nerds to mess with."