Dust Up in Sun City

Last April, the doctors gave James Manak some painkillers and sent him home to die.

After months of unexplained chest pain and difficulty breathing, Manak was diagnosed with a rare, untreatable form of cancer called mesothelioma. At 81, he wasn't so shocked by the death sentence, but he was surprised to learn his disease is in almost all cases linked to asbestos.

James and his daughter Connie thought hard about when he could have been exposed to asbestos. Manak had worked for the phone company in the suburbs of Chicago most of his life, in teletype. No asbestos there. He did recall that for a very brief time he had a job putting linings in telephones back before the war, 60 years ago, Connie says, which could have involved asbestos. But the doctors told her that would likely have been too long ago to match up with this diagnosis.

Experts say mesothelioma comes between 20 and 40 years after exposure to asbestos, although some say it can occur after even less time. It is considered the worst of asbestos-related diseases.

The cruel irony was how healthy Manak had been before he got sick. A few years back he'd had prostate cancer and borderline diabetes, but he'd changed his lifestyle and gotten better.

"I was really proud of him because my dad was one who liked to eat and liked to sleep and he really changed his ways and took care of himself," says Connie.

The Manaks never imagined that James could have been exposed to asbestos after he left the work force, perhaps when he moved to Sun City, Del Webb's idyllic retirement community west of Phoenix.

But that's what some people think. James Manak built a house in Sun City in the '70s, moving there permanently in 1984. His wife died in 1992, but Manak continued to enjoy retirement living -- leading a prayer group, volunteering at the senior center and driving a truck for the local food bank -- until he fell ill.

Manak had many friends, among them another Sun City retiree named Gordon Rosier. Rosier is one of a small group of Sun City residents determined to shut down the dozens of sand and gravel pits in the Agua Fria River near Sun City, operations they say bring dust, noise and pollutants to their serene surroundings. And they're not afraid to use the word "cancer" to achieve their goal.

They've convinced the federal Mining Safety and Health Administration to test the Agua Fria for asbestos, which is supposed to be taking samples near Sun City sometime this year. Those results won't be available for months, at least. (MSHA officials did not return repeated calls for comment.)

No one has linked sand and gravel operations with asbestos-related cancer. The activists say they suspect that naturally occurring asbestos is in the dust that's being stirred up by mining operations, and spread across the community.

Rosier's strongest proof so far: preliminary figures from the Maricopa County Department of Public Health showing that zip codes in the Sun City area near the sand and gravel pits have among the highest rates of mesothelioma in the county -- in fact, among the highest in the country.

County epidemiologists warn that since the numbers are so low -- they always are, where mesothelioma is concerned, because it's so incredibly rare -- the statistics are hard to rely on. Much more detailed analysis needs to take place to determine, among other things, how long the mesothelioma victims lived in Sun City, whether they lived in clusters, and whether they could have been exposed to asbestos elsewhere.

"I guess if I were them, I'd be screaming for more research," says Mare Schumacher, the county's deputy director of epidemiology. She warns that it could cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But while even the lobbyist for Arizona sand and gravel operators says he wants the research done, there's no indication that the county is ready to spend another penny in this endeavor.

The preliminary report on mesothelioma in Maricopa County was completed in September. Since then, there's been no action to do anything beyond it.

"At this time we agree that further study is probably necessary," says Doug Hauth, spokesman for the county's Department of Public Health. "But we'll have to investigate how we're going to go about it, because we'll have to go down and ask the Board of Supes [Supervisors] and the Board of Health how they want to split up the money."

As for the timing? "I have no projections," Hauth says.

Max Wilson, the Maricopa County supervisor who represents the area, isn't ready to spend any money. His staff says Wilson is waiting to hear the results of the Mining Safety and Health Administration's tests along the Agua Fria before he decides whether to push for further research into mesothelioma rates in Sun City.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at