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I-Team: Internal emails show state’s effort to downplay asbestos concerns

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Nevada’s Department of Health and Human Services might be facing tough questions once the governor learns about the content of their internal emails. 

Messages obtained from state computers show high-ranking officials displayed contempt for those who disagreed with them about asbestos issues.

The 8 News NOW I-Team requested all emails to or from the two top officials at the health agency. Those officials have insisted the public has nothing to worry about because of natural asbestos deposits in southern Nevada, even though other state agencies and outside experts strongly disagree.

The emails spell out how far these officials would go to make sure their opinions prevailed.

State health officials latched onto one viewpoint about asbestos, right in the beginning, and have since rejected all other opinions or input. They’ve declined requests to study asbestos issues side by side with university professors. Their emails contain snarky potshots aimed at media members, and they worked in unison to avoid outside accountability, even when asked to do so by the governor of Nevada.

It’s probably fortunate that Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval never granted any interviews about asbestos issues, because if he had relied on the talking points provided to his office by state health officials, it could have been a major embarrassment.

The talking points are rife with errors and spin. Ever since naturally occurring asbestos was discovered in southern Nevada in 2012, state health officials have struggled to control the narrative.

Never once, in the scores of emails obtained by the I-Team, do state officials ask themselves whether they might be wrong about the risk posed by asbestos. Instead  they focused almost exclusively on how to convince everyone else that they were right.

From the beginning, they developed an ever-changing list of talking points. From the earliest version of an email to a 2015 edition of the email which was written for the governor a few days after a series of stories by the I-Team aired. The talking points email blasted the I-Team stories.

“The media coverage of the issue — most acutely George Knapp — is sensational, biased and incomplete.”

It also attacked the two UNLV professors for creating panic and hysteria while being outside their area of expertise.

“When geologists step outside their field … and that engender alarm, panic and hysteria.”

Read: Deadly Dust – Asbestos in the Backyard

Earlier, Chief Medical Officer Dr.Tracey Green on May 5, 2105 opined that she and her staff looked solid in the news stories, while the “reporter looked crazy.”

That same day, Green got an email from her boss Mike Willden telling her, “As you can read below … the governor wants a follow up with reporter George Knapp.”

But Green defied the governor, saying, “We spent over an hour with him … I do not feel more time with Mr. Knapp would be productive.”

It wasn’t the only time she, and her staff, blew off a directive from the boss.

Governor Sandoval has shown a keen interest in the asbestos flap since early on. After all, he’s been a strong proponent of building the I-11 bypass, which — it turns out — plows right through the heart of the asbestos fields discovered by UNLV medical geologists Brenda Buck and Rod Metcalf. 

When the state heard that Buck and Metcalf were working on a paper suggesting a possible link between the asbestos in the desert and elevated levels of disease, state officials shut them down, forbid the team from talking about their findings, and barred them from ever accessing the Nevada Cancer Registry again.

Even though state health officials intimated in emails that Buck and Metcalf might be engaged in scientific fraud comparable to disgraced vaccine researcher Andrew Wakefield, the same opinion wasn’t shared by another state agency. The Department of Transportation, NDOT, which hired the two to study asbestos for the I-11 project.

“We were surprised that this segment of the state was interested in the asbestos and the other segment, you know, said cease working on it,” Buck said.

Unlike its counterparts in the health agencies, NDOT took the asbestos issue very seriously, which is why it suspended the  highway project for a year and spent millions of dollars to protect workers from asbestos exposure during construction. 

Health officials, who had told the public many times that the asbestos posed no risk, reluctantly had to change their stance.

“We never said the occupational workers or construction workers could not be at increased risk. We have never said that,” said Green.

 “But you are saying there is no risk, no increased risk?”  I-Team George Knapp asked.

“To the community,” Green answered.

It wasn’t the only time words were parsed by health officials, which might explain why in January 2014 the governor said he wanted to see an independent agency to review  the asbestos data. The request caused a bit of a tizzy.

“Not sure why the governor is requesting this,” one email remarked. But, they quickly came up with an idea for sidestepping the boss again … get Paulo to do it.

That first name appears throughout the health agency emails, so familiar to his colleagues that there was no need to mention his last name. 

Dr. Paolo Pinheiro is a UNLV epidemiologist who has repeatedly been touted by health officials an independent investigator not affiliated with state health, Green told the I-Team.

But as the I-Team discovered, Dr. Pinheiro has accepted tens of thousands of dollars in grants from Green’s agency and he is listed as the official epidemiologist for the Nevada Cancer Registry, which Green oversees.

Back in 2012, when the state first learned that Dr. Francine Baumann was working on a paper about asbestos an email went out Oct. 14, 2012 to all senior staff at the agency, including Dr. Pinheiro.

“Probably we need to discuss again our next step in dealing with this doctor (Dr. Baumann) especially that she did not previously respect our rules and regulations.” 

That next step turned to be the cease and desist order. Pinherio became the go-to guy when state health needed something written to counter the idea that natural asbestos might be a danger to public health.

In February, Pinherio exchanged multiple emails in which he was asked to write to a medical journal to rebut an article by Baumann. Still, the agency pretended it was all done independently … “if he would like to, it needs to be initiated and done by him, not at our request,” Green wrote.

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