Unscientific California: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Serpentine and Biodiversity

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | July 15, 2010 9:23 am

In light of California’s most recent faux pas, today’s guest commentary comes from California native David Lowry. David’s an extraordinary plant biologist working on the genetics of switchgrass as a postdoc at the University of Texas at Austin. (And yes I’m biased, he’s soon to be my husband).

Picture 1Given the economic crisis has wreaked havoc to my beloved home state of California, why are our lawmakers spending any time on a horribly misguided quest to dethrone serpentine (pictured left) as the state rock?

A bit of background: Serpentine is commonly found in the hilly areas of California. It usually has a lovely smooth green or whitish tinge and its chemical composition has other characteristics fascinating to geologists, which I won’t detail here…except to include that some forms contain a small amount of asbestos, which leads us to our current predicament.

You all remember asbestos, right? That lung cancer-causing white powdery substance that closed down your school gym as a kid for a year when they discovered it in those flame-resistant tiles (which seemed like a good idea at the time) lining the ceiling. Yep, it’s nasty stuff. We know we don’t want it around and can move on, right?


In a misguided attempt to “educate” Californians about the dangers of asbestos, State Senator Gloria Romero introduced a bill (SB624) to remove serpentine as the state rock. The result has been a widespread revolt among geologists–at least in the twitterverse under the hashtag: #CASerpentine. These raucous geologists just can’t understand why Senator Romero wants to castigate a perfectly good rock, especially given the fact that most serpentine does not contain asbestos. And even in cases where rocks do, someone would need to work at intentionally inhaling the stuff like a teenager sniffing glue to even have a remote chance of getting cancer.

220px-Darlingtonia_californica_ne1But I’m not concerned about serpentine losing its status because of intrinsic beauty or Senator Romero’s poor understanding of chemistry. I am a botanist, so plants are close to my heart and what I spend a lot of my time thinking about.

Throughout my childhood growing up in Northern California, I was educated about the importance of serpentine to the plant communities in state. Yes, it is indeed toxic, but mostly to them. Even so, many plants have evolved to deal with toxic soil and well over 200 species in California live exclusively on this special rock. That’s 10% of all endemic biodiversity, even though it only covers 1% of the state. Serpentine-adapted plants include the majestic carnivorous Cobra Lily (Darlingtonia californica)–known to eat insects, frogs, and even the occasional snake–and many other marvelous species that are rare or endangered.

If Senator Romero really had education in mind, she would stop bashing serpentine. Rather, she would make sure that all children in California learned about this important treasure and the bounty of biodiversity it fosters in the Golden State.


Comments (12)

  1. MT-LA

    “If Senator Romero really had education in mind, she would stop bashing serpentine.”
    Silly David Lowry…of course Senator Romero doesn’t have education in mind. Being a senator, she only has one thing on her mind – being a senator…which of course means getting re-elected.
    By the way, her own website has no mention of SB 624, or serpentine for that matter. Thanks for nothing, Senator Romero. May your tenure be short and painful!
    (Disclosure: I live in LA, but thankfully not in her district.)

  2. Nemesis

    Demoting it from its status as state rock isn’t going to make it any less carcinogenic. What a monumental waste.

  3. Lindsay

    Serpentine is the perfect state mineral for California. It is strange, beautiful, harbors all sorts of unique life, and often times, a small percentage of bad stuff wrecks it for everyone else.

  4. Miss Anthropissed

    As an oncologist, all too familiar with the ravages of mesothelioma, I am also reminded constantly that our state sells, taxes and regulates tobacco, with which asbestos is synergistically carcinogenic, and kills many more people by itself than does asbestos. Maybe we should change our state flower from Eschscholzia californica to Nicotiana tabacum, to “educate” the public about this. Maybe our legislature could even support our public schools, to “educate” the public?

    Perhaps our legislature could instead spend their time more usefully to break the choke hold of the California Medical Association in preventing rural physician employment, which could actually help improve the health of our state. SB 624 is absurd and a waste of time and I’ll be writing my Senator to vote no on this bill.

  5. First Circle

    Politicians are always doing this stuff, its a mixture of grandstanding and scientific ineptitude. How many people don’t know about the threats of asbestos? How much asbestos is still in a place where humans can contact it sufficiently over the long term to pose a threat?

  6. joepaleo

    Throughout my childhood growing up in Southern Oregon, I was educated about the importance of serpentine to the plant communities in state. : ) Perhaps there’s something to that State of Jefferson proposal after all. Anyway you are welcome to change your allegiance to Oregon at any time. Our State Parks have even set aside a Darlingtonia wayside (yes, californica, we’ll have to work on that).
    I hope we’ll be hearing about your switchgrass work as it progresses.

  7. Thank you Sheril/David for your very informative perspective. I wish the lawmakers listen to the experts before pushing bills with no scientific basis.

    SERPENTINITE (the rock) contributes much to CA’s plant diversity. Botanists from around the world flock to California to study plants restricted to CA’s serpentines (I moved to CA because of its serpentines). SERPENTINITE outcrops in CA harbor 12.5% of CA’s endemic plants (i.e. plants found only in CA). This accounts for about 176+ species. It is a remarkably high number given that only 670 plant species are associated with SERPENTINITE in CA, a substrate covering less than 1.5% of the state. These plants provide numerous “teaching and research moments.” The outcrops are model settings for teaching biology from cells to the ecosystem level.

    Here are a few books focusing on CA serpentines.

    Alexander, E. A., Coleman R. G., Keeler-Wolf, T., and Harrison, S. (2006) Serpentine Geoecology of Western North America. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

    Kruckeberg, A. R. (1984) California Serpentines: Flora, Vegetation, Geology, Soils and Management Problems. University of California Press, Berkeley.

    There are several dozen peer-reviewed publications arising from research done on CA serpentines every year!

    They are model settings for teaching and research (Harrison, S. P. and N. Rajakaruna (Eds.). 2010. Serpentine: Evolution and Ecology in a model System. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, USA . In press) and we here in CA are lucky to have these great natural laboratories in our backyards.

    Serpentine ecology conferences have their origins in California. The first conference was held in 1991 at the University of California, Davis. Subsequently, conferences have been held in New Caledonia (1995), South Africa (1999), Cuba (2003), Italy (2006), and Maine (2008), always highlighting a region with intriguing serpentine rock-biota associations. The next conference will be held in Portugal (2011), and the international delegates of these conferences are concerned about taking SERPENTINE off the list and thereby losing the protection status we now have for CA’s SERPENTINE-associated plants and animals found nowhere else in the world.

    Most SERPENTINITE contains little to no asbestiform chrysotile (of the ‘serpentine’ group of minerals) and does not pose any significant health risk in its natural state. The fact that chrysotile presents adverse health effects as a reason for removing SERPENTINITE as the state rock is as flawed as saying that the Ridge-nosed rattlesnake should be removed as the state reptile of Arizona as it is poisonous to humans. The grizzly bear is pretty hazardous to humans too so why is it the state animal? Perhaps because we have already killed it off? Also, do we not go outside because UV rays are harmful to our health? UV is clearly more harmful than exposure to CA’s SERPENTINITE which contains minimal amounts of chrysotile asbestos (short fiber), not the tremolite asbestos (long fiber), which is known to be harmful to health, only under high levels of exposure. I guess we can keep going on and on talking about how anything can be harmful to human health if misused or mishandled. Serpentine in its natural state poses no danger to human health.

    Danger is relative. As far as asbestos, it all depends on the asbestos type (chrysotile versus tremolite), exposure frequency, and exposure level. All three factors are very low in most SERPENTINITE landscapes around the world, particularly in CA.

    There are essentially no documented cases of anybody having developed asbestosis or mesothelioma from the casual chrysotile asbestos exposures received from naturally-occurring chrysotile asbestos found in SERPENTINITE terrain. Practically all of the reported cases of mesothelioma are from long-term, industrial-level exposures in asbestos-containing facilities with poor ventilation. Further, it is the exposure to ‘tremolite’ asbestos NOT ‘chrysotile’ asbestos which is known to increase the risk of developing mesothelioma.

    My colleagues and I urge that SERPENTINITE remains in place as the State Rock. It is part of our natural heritage, one that has served CA well, economically, biologically, and aesthetically.

  8. Also, as David & Sheril point out there has been much outrage from the geologic community regarding this bill that has absolutely no scientific basis.

    Here are some reasons why we biologists should be very worried about Gloria Romero’s push to demonize serpentine, a rock that has contributed much to local and regional patterns of biodiversity here in CA.

    1. There is some discussion on grinding serpentinite rock as means of carbon sequestration (http://www.physorg.com/news1041.html). Once serpentine landscapes are deemed ‘toxic’ these habitats become easy targets for such efforts which will have drastic effects on CA’s biodiversity; over half of CA’s rare species of plants are restricted to serpentine and other unusual soils
    2. Serpentine areas in private property could become liabilities (as per anti-asbestos litigation), thereby leading landowners to take drastic measures to rid their land of serpentine, areas harboring much of CA’s rare and endemic species
    3. Once serpentine is deemed toxic it will become increasingly difficult for those trying to study and preserve these habitats to access such sites for research and teaching
    4. By taking serpentine off its much-deserved celebrated status we belittle the value of these habitats and consequently our control over preserving and studying the amazing life forms found only in these habitats
    I urge botanists, zoologists, microbiologists, and other biologists to voice their concerns. We need to be heard.

  9. Ryan O'Dell

    #3 as stated by Nishi is already happening in California. On May 1, 2008, the EPA released sampling data from the Clear Creek Management Area (BLM-administered public land) and along with health risk modeling, determined that the public was at excess lifetime risk of developing asbestosis from visiting the area. On the same day, the Hollister BLM Field office instituted an emergency closure of the 35,000 acre area to virtually all public use. The county followed the BLM’s lead and closed the public road system within the area as well, completely blocking any legal access to the area. This closure was and still is to date, the largest public land closure ever. Thousands of visitors per year, including OHV recreationists, rockhounds, geologists, biologists, etc, visited the area prior to the closure and have since been denied access. It was not until recently, under pressure from the public, that the county reversed its decision and re-opened the public road system through the area. The BLM lands continue to remain under emergency closure pending completion of the Clear Creek Management Area Resource Management Plan which will decide if the area is ever re-opened to public use again and if so, at what level. This will be a precedent-setting case in California for public access to serpentine terrain. We have already had individuals from other federal organizations contact us to determine if they may also use the naturally-occurring asbestos issue as leverage to close access to public lands.

    I urge the public (Attention Senator Romero) to educate themselves about serpentine and the minerals it may or may not contain (including chrysotile), the exposure models that the EPA is using to calculate risk, including their inherent limitations (such as not discerning between the relative toxicity of chrysotile [less harmful] vs. tremolite [much more harmful] asbestos), and the ultimate result of such studies which include closure of public lands to public access, loss of private property value as it is declared “contaminated wasteland”, and removal of serpentine as the state rock because of the false belief that it is toxic to humans.

    See the following resources as major naturally-occurring asbestos cases currently playing out in California:

    Eldorado Hills –



    BLM Clear Creek Management Area –



  10. CarolineSF

    You all are unaware of one piece of irony in regard to your comments about whether Gloria Romero has education in mind. Romero just ran for California State Superintendent of Public Instruction. She was the candidate of a powerful and ultra-wealthy faction in education politics — the free-market advocates who want to crush public education and see it turned into privatized charter schools (who are backed by think tanks and billionaires, including Bill Gates — unfortunately, the Obama administration has also been sucked in). Romero was resoundingly defeated even though the two pro-public-school, pro-teacher candidates who opposed her split the vote and face a runoff.

    The bounteously funded charter school industry makes a practice of providing for its own, so Romero will probably wind up as some kind of executive or lobbyist for charter schools. So it will be ironic if she ends up in the education field, given her deep appreciation for sound science.

  11. Terry

    I am a biologist and a research biochemist specializing in natural occurring (NOA) “asbestos” in California. The legislature is a day late (meaning decades late) and a dollar short (meaning, well more) and working on the complete wrong subject.

    ADAO is not intentionally misleading, but they as a group are misleading. Natural occurring forms of asbestos occur in all states in the ground from soft friable easily airborne to hard rock hard to blow up with dynamite. In California communities have lived on all forms of natural occurring Chrysotile “asbestos” for well over 200 years. Intensive studies of death certificates shows no excess lung cancer or any excess mesothelioma at Chrysotile sites at all. San Francisco is the most contaminated Chrysotile city on earth. Yet small communities in California, inside El Dorado, Amador, Toulomne, who have lived on Tremolite asbestos deposits for only short periods, show large quantities of excess mesothelioma. Not just in humans but in animals too. Huge levels of death from a non serpentine NOA. This news regarding Tremolite was published in the newspapers, mostly front page news, in Sacramento for 8 years straight! What do the legislators do? Why they OK “asbestos” epidemics by refusing to address the problem, and they condemn the innocent serpentine rock without even realizing what they are doing.

    For those who don’t know, this exact same subject has nearly killed entire communities in the United States. Groups such as ADAO focusing on Chrysotile “asbestos” to the exclusion of the far more dangerous forms of “asbestos” have lead to the communities of Libby Montana and Jefferson Parish Louisiana having enormous non serpentine epidemics of human death. The legislators could actually do something useful here, but not while they are mislead by non scientists such as ADAO.

  12. Terry, well said. It is great to have experts like yourself weigh in on this. We, serpentine enthusiasts (botanists/geologists), appreciate hearing your expert views.

    Also, see: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2010/07/18/calling-on-californians-west-coast-represent/

    Perhaps you can weigh in if you have any additional asbestos-related thoughts!


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry.Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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