EL DORADO HILLS, Calif. -- The boys of summer they were not. On a baseball diamond in this upscale suburb east of Sacramento, a federal team in blue and marshmallow-white moon suits gathered last October for a different sort of game.
Respirator masks jiggling, the oddball squad hit the diamond -- batting, fielding, sliding into third. They also rode bikes and played hopscotch, kicked soccer balls and shot baskets. As dust rose, little air monitors quietly sampled what the earth dished up.
The fear is that there could be danger in the soil.
As the state's development boom cuts a swath through the Sierra foothills, Mother Nature has pushed back a bit. Veins of naturally occurring asbestos lace this territory, once the haunt of Gold Rush miners. Released into the air by a bulldozer blade scraping a home pad or new roadway, asbestos can lurk in the lungs for decades before striking with deadly force.
This small community, where Mercedes and BMWs dash past tony Tudors and Mediterranean mini-mansions, has uncomfortably found itself at the center of a debate over what to do.
Asbestos fears prompted a $2.5-million fix at Oak Ridge High School -- capping almost every exposed surface with concrete or ground cover -- that was finished just in time for the return of 1,800 students last fall.
U.S. health authorities are warning those most at risk of past exposure -- athletes, long-time coaches and others who spent time out in the dust -- to get regular medical checkups for lung cancer, asbestosis and other afflictions brought on by the spear-shaped fibers.
At the park, brooms have replaced the leaf blowers that once kicked up dust.
Now the results of last October's playground tests threaten to unleash a new round of consternation in an unincorporated community that is 90% white, backed George W. Bush in a big way and is among the state's wealthiest places, with one in five households reporting a median income of $150,000 or more.
Around here, many folks have grown weary of this environmental intrusion on the good life.
"We know how the government overreacts to everything," said Bob Close, a longtime resident who can't name a single old-timer, erstwhile high school athlete or anyone else who has contracted an asbestos-related illness. "It's the old knee-jerk thing. Forty years down the road I could be wrong, but there's risk in life whatever you do."
The types of rock formations containing naturally occurring asbestos run the length of the Sierra foothills, one of the fastest-growing regions in California. Pockets of asbestos pepper 44 of the state's 58 counties. It can be found in many parts of the western U.S., the Eastern Seaboard and foreign lands, including Greece and Turkey.
Even so, U.S. regulatory attention has focused largely on this town of 30,000. El Dorado County officials say they're willing to do what it takes to ensure a healthy community, but they contend that the region has been unfairly singled out.
Two studies of cancer rates in the community have failed to turn up any suspicious clusters of illness. The closest thing to an epidemiological smoking gun is another study that found greatly elevated levels of asbestos in the lungs of four deceased dogs and cats from the area.
"The earth sheds asbestos. It's in the state rock, serpentine," reasoned Jon Morgan, El Dorado County's environmental management director. The county's toxic mix doesn't compare to levels in urban areas, he said. "Go to downtown L.A. or San Francisco and the cancer risk is many times greater than it is living here."
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials, who ordered up the tests at El Dorado Hills Community Park and three nearby elementary school playgrounds, have scheduled a town hall meeting Friday in El Dorado Hills. They say the results, to be released in full today, leave little doubt that action is needed.
The worst spot was along the park's creek-side trail, where moon-suited bikers kicked up 43 times the asbestos contained in background air. Jogging churned up 39 times as much, while the faux baseball game raised levels of asbestos to 22 times ambient air levels.
Just what sort of threat this all poses is unclear. Assessing the long-term health effects of infrequent exposure to naturally occurring asbestos in outdoor settings -- what children might experience frolicking on a jungle gym -- remains an inexact science.
Still, scientists say the biggest worry is children. Not only are they more apt to kick up dust while playing, but their longer life spans put them at greater risk of contracting illnesses that can wait half a century to strike.
"We're concerned," said Dan Meer, EPA's regional Superfund emergency response chief. "We'd like a discussion in the community about what the next steps are."
What should be done remains a moving target.
The effects of asbestos are well known and highly regulated in the home and office. Unfettered by precautions, the fibers can cause tragedy. In the small mining town of Libby, Mont., hundreds of workers died in the 1980s and 1990s after decades of breathing daily doses of lethal tremolite asbestos fibers.
In El Dorado Hills, much of the asbestos is also tremolite. The possibilities of looming health problems from these deposits dog the minds of some residents.
Laurie Lindley-Muender, 49, can gaze over the back fence at building pads for new homes, soon to sell from the mid-$700,000s up. During months of grading and dynamiting last year, dust billowed up the hillside and into her home.
Her fear is for son Greg, 17, and her 15-year-old daughter, Courtney. Looking for answers, she asked a local TV news crew to test the soil outside and dust swept up by her vacuum. The results: Asbestos levels as high as 1.5% in the soil, a rate considered dangerous by the EPA.
Lindley-Muender recalls her daughter's days as a cheerleader, performing on Oak Ridge High's old asbestos-tainted track, recently replaced by a clean all-weather surface.
The mother's memories roll in uneasy slow motion: Courtney getting up after a routine, slapping her hands clean, a cloud of dust floating at face level.
"Most people around here seem more worried about home values than health," said Lindley-Muender. "The risk seems so distant, decades away, so ambiguous."
But the situation was clear enough to Lance McMahan.
In the late 1990s, as fears over asbestos percolated through the community, McMahan grew frustrated by what he considered a balky response from the county. So he moved out of town.
The epiphany hit soon after he came upon an exposed formation of tremolite asbestos while walking near Oak Ridge High. McMahan, a civil engineer, watched the chalky material break up in his hand, shining fibers floating in the air.
"It was like looking death in the face," recalled McMahan, 44. "I was in the middle of a residential area. They were building homes. Kids were riding their bikes, sliding in this stuff, blowing it into the air. I was afraid, and I don't scare easily."
At Oak Ridge High, authorities have decreed that the asbestos risk is past. An exposed hillside has been capped by concrete. Two feet of clean dirt covers the soccer and baseball fields. The student quad, once decomposed granite, is a mosaic of concrete.
But that's little consolation for teachers like Stan Iverson.
As he nears age 50, Iverson has spent nearly half his life on the campus, teaching biology and environmental science. He has worried for years about the effects of asbestos on his students. Just recently he found reason to worry about himself: An X-ray revealed a spot on his right lung.
Doctors can't pinpoint what caused it, but Iverson wonders if the culprit could be all the asbestos-tainted dust that has floated into his classroom.
"This county has wanted to develop the western slope, and they're going to do it no matter what," he said. "But we can do it smarter. Don't we want to err on the side of caution instead of being reckless?"
County officials contend they're doing plenty. They're heralding proposed regulations on dust created by development and landscaping, expected to be approved by supervisors at the start of summer, as the toughest in the nation.
"We have been out in front on this," said Supervisor Helen Baumann. "We keep being compared to Libby, Mont., which we are not."
Short of more solid proof linking asbestos to local health problems, officials are uneasy about pouring money into new concrete, fresh dirt and other big-ticket projects.
"It's frustrating," said Wayne Lowery, El Dorado Hills Community Services District general manager. "We could fix it, and then the wind might blow asbestos right back in. We'd have problems all over again."
The EPA has proposed bringing in an international panel of experts to address such issues. In the meantime, state and federal lawmakers have jumped into the mess. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) last week proposed spending $40 million to map areas with naturally occurring asbestos and draw up solutions, while state Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) wants to create a state task force to tackle the problem.
But in a world awash with health threats, most folks around El Dorado Hills seem willing to shrug it off.
Naturally occurring asbestos, declared Don Sgamba, 71, retiree, "is not a big topic. Gas prices, that's a bigger worry."
Charles Heintschel lives with his wife and three children in the neighborhood beside the asbestos trove slashed open by bulldozers grading Oak Ridge High's soccer field.
He has no health worries, Heintschel said as his toddler son scampered nearby. He also figures it'll pose no problems for future resale of his tidy two-story, which has already doubled in price.
"The whole thing," Heintschel concluded, "seems like overkill."