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Californians Debate Fate of Official State Rock

Serpentine rock
Serpentine rock

California has an official animal, the grizzly bear, and a state bird, the California quail. It has an official grass, purple needle grass, and a state reptile, the desert tortoise. It even has an official song, a century-old tune called "I Love You, California."

In 1965, California became the first state to name an official rock, a greenish or bluish mineral called serpentine.

But California state senator Gloria Romero was disturbed when she learned that the rock often contains asbestos, which has been linked to a dangerous form of cancer called mesothelioma. "I further learned that serpentine is the state rock for California. As a member of the health committee for the state of California, I believe that that was an inconsistent message," she said.

Romero is sponsoring the bill to revoke serpentine's status as the state rock.

Critics like George Rossman say that is a waste of time. A mineralogist at the California Institute of Technology, Rossman says serpentine is only dangerous if you grind it up and inhale the particles.

He says the type of asbestos contained in the rock, called chrysotile, is dangerous through long-term exposure, but he notes it is not the most hazardous type of asbestos. And he says the risk from chrysotile is low when the asbestos is contained.

He says serpentine, which is also called serpentinite, is formed under the ocean floor and is common in coastal areas like California. "It represents very important things going on in the geological history of California. And although the rock itself very occasionally contains asbestos, which formerly was mined commercially in California, the fact is, the rock still remains interesting and pretty. And why are we wasting our time doing this?," he asked.

Today, serpentine has ornamental uses in polished jewelry. It is widely found in California, with deposits in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and in 42 of the state's 58 counties.

Rossman asks what other rocks could replace it as state rock, and for the sake of argument, suggests granite. "But if you look at it carefully, you find that granite contains quartz, and quartz when its ground to a fine powder and inhaled, can cause silicosis," he said.

What about limestone or dolomite, he asks, which are useful in making cement? He notes that they can contain lead, which is dangerous in high concentrations.

Critics are also suspicious of the one of the bill's endorsers. The group Consumer Attorneys of California is backing Romero's bill, and skeptical opponents say trial lawyers are hoping to publicize and expand their asbestos-related lawsuits.

Romero admits trial lawyers are among the bill's supporters, but says victims of asbestos-related cancer are at the forefront of the effort. "And we are getting support from the California labor federation as well because many people, especially construction workers, and actually, believe it or not, teachers working in old buildings are often-times exposed to asbestos. So those who represent workers on the job have come out in support," she said.

George Rossman points to a string of e-mails from American and international colleagues who call the bill misguided, and see it as an example of California foolishness. Several news editorials have said the state could better spend its time healing a crippled economy.

Senator Romero says her measure highlights a concern for victims of asbestos, while critics like George Rossman say it maligns a fine rock and is based on bad science. The bill to drop the rock will come up for a vote in early August.