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Toxic Treasure Hunt

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Johnny brought home a bunch of souvenirs from the beach last summer. From Illinois Beach State Park, to be exact. Can you guess which souvenirs contain asbestos? And should Johnny's parents be worried? (Hint: Asbestos is a mineral long used in construction materials, now known to be a deadly carcinogen when inhaled!

No one's sure how bad it is to eat or drink it.)

answers:

1 Chunk of cement. Good guess! Chunks of asbestos cement washing up on the park's beaches were first noticed by an Illinois EPA official who happened to be visiting last July. Some think it might be from the nearby Johns Manville asbestos plant, which includes a one-million-ton asbestos dump that was covered in 1991 as part of a federal Superfund cleanup.

2 Pipe section. Right again! This could be from asbestos water mains that once served lakefront houses, which were demolished so the park could be expanded. Lots of shoreline erosion has since put most of the area underwater and exposed the mains.

3 Fish. Maybe! A 1981 U.S. EPA study found asbestos fibers in the kidneys and meat of Lake Superior trout taken from water contaminated with asbestos.

4 Water. Almost certainly! The Chicago Water Department has been testing for 25 years and finding asbestos every time. Luckily, the levels are below federal health guidelines, and after treatment the asbestos is reduced by up to 95 percent. Oddly, state testing in February showed no asbestos in samples from the Zion-Benton Harbor or Waukegan water-treatment plants. But that seems a bit fishy, don't you think?

5 They say the greatest fear is fear of the unknown. If so, Johnny's parents should be very worried indeed. After a February meeting of state officials, assistant attorney general Matthew Dunn said, "The [state] Department of Public Health does not believe this is a public health risk in or around the beach or park." But a few weeks later state senator Terry Link said that a state public-health official later added that if the washed-up asbestos dries out it can get into the air and "then it could become dangerous." Too bad Johnny didn't keep his souvenirs immersed in water.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Mike Werner.

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