Too close for comfort

When the lots behind her house were graded for construction, Laurie Lindley-Muender says, dust was blown into her home. Asbestos levels as high as 1.5%, a level the EPA considers dangerous, were found in the soil in her yard. (Robert Durell / Los Angeles Times)

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.