No, serpentine is not a toxic rock.
The misconception is that chrysotile asbestos (a fibrous mineral) is one of three minerals that make up serpentine.
However, the association with chrysotile asbestos has been the downfall of this stone.
It only becomes toxic if it is disturbed.
Is Serpentine Toxic? (A Beginner’s Guide)
1) Serpentine Is Not A Rock
Serpentine is defined as a group of minerals and not a rock.
The three most common minerals found in serpentine are chrysotile, lizardite and antigorite.
Chrysotile is the more famous of the three because it is an asbestos mineral and should never be disturbed.
If chipped, asbestos fibers will float into the air.
It would be hazardous to your health if you inhale asbestos dust.
However, it is unfair to put all the minerals associated with serpentine in the category of carcinogens.
According to various federal agencies, there are no health issues with lizardite and antigorite.
These formations are considered metamorphic rocks that are located deep in the Earth’s crust.
Primarily, serpentine is located in the state of California due to the forces of the Pacific Ocean moving the earth’s plates.
It was designated as the state’s rock in 1965.
There are large bands of minerals in the Coast Range, Klamath Mountains and Sierra Nevada foothills in Central and Northern California.
Other locations where serpentine can be found are along the fault lines near the coast.
Thus, the ocean’s crust heats the serpentine stone through the upper mantle and into the basal ocean rocks.
2) Serpentine is a Great Insulator
There is a wide variety of serpentine found in rock formations.
The mineral’s main characteristic is its resistance to transferring heat and will not burn, but the group of minerals acts as a great insulator.
Once this came to light, the stone became an ideal component in the construction industry for over a century.
No one can deny the economic resources gained by using serpentine stone in most architectural projects.
Builders felt serpentine was softer than granite but harder than marble.
It became the ideal surface for walls, mantles and window stills.
Later on, serpentine was used as the leading material to make ceiling tiles and pipe insulation in the construction of most public buildings.
The popularity of serpentine waned in the last half of the 20th Century due to serious health issues contracted by construction workers.
The daily contact with the stone’s asbestos led to many of those workers dying from lung cancer.
Federal guidelines came down after intense scrutiny from watchdog groups. Health agencies classified asbestos found in serpentine as a carcinogen worldwide.
3) Is a Single Exposure to Asbestos Harmful?
Recent medical studies have stated there is no level of asbestos exposure considered safe for individuals.
If you’re surveying near serpentine with chrysotile asbestos, you need to take safety precautions (wearing a mask and protective clothing) to avoid any threat of inhaling or coming in contact with toxic dust.
Some individuals get confused with recognizing asbestos based on the color of the substance.
Asbestos fibers are white or gray to the human eye.
Confusion among individuals begins because brown asbestos was used as insulation inside the home’s walls and ceilings.
In those same medical studies, the data showed most asbestos-related cancer diagnoses arisen after an extended period of exposure time.
Still, there is a significant amount of health risk to asbestos even if you’re exposed to the mineral one time.
4) Does Chrysotile Asbestos Affect The Soil?
Botanists have argued the importance of serpentine to the soil.
But the soil can be greatly affected after being exposed to chrysotile asbestos.
Usually, these locations have little to no vegetation.
But studies have shown chrysotile asbestos helps with soil stabilization.
Often it helps to avoid accelerated erosion.
In most cases, chrysotile asbestos forms in the cracks of rock formations.
Asbestos fibers are tiny and can only be seen with a microscope.
But this toxicant helps the soil thrive. Unfortunately, the plant roots in the soil are failing to obtain the necessary calcium to live in this destitute environment.
Thankfully, chrysotile asbestos can only survive near specific soil condition locales.
Once the asbestos is disturbed, the fibers will go airborne and settle on the soil.
Individuals who come in contact with asbestos are facing severe health concerns whether they inhaled or ingested the dust.
To reduce the exposure level, it is best to leave the formation undisturbed.
It lowers the risk by keeping asbestos stabilized in the rock formation.
Despite all the arguments for its usefulness, the threat of contaminating the soil is all the more reason to leave chrysotile asbestos alone.
5) Serpentine Gemstone is a Very Desired Jewelry
Statements that serpentine is toxic are very misleading and not backed by geologists.
The gemstone has become a centerpiece of lovely jewelry.
The popularity has grown because serpentine is inexpensive to other gemstones.
It is a very affordable alternative to the more expensive jade stone.
Some surveyors have unearthed serpentine that has grouped as many as 20 different minerals.
The metamorphic process occurs at low temperatures that combine heat and water to oxidize the rock formation that brings serpentine gemstones to the earth’s surface.
The chemical reaction brings a group of minerals (nickel, cobalt, manganese and chromium) that produces a variety of colors and impurities.
The creation will form a marble pattern on the gemstone.
Green is the most popular serpentine gemstone used by jewelry-makers.
Most of them will use the antigorite mineral, which is safe for drilling and shaping into form.
Often, the end result is very eye-catching to potential customers.
Finally, there are no health concerns associated with wearing serpentine jewelry.
None of the jewelry pieces have asbestos fibers because the minerals used are non-fibrous.
6) How to Rockhound Serpentine
Chances are pretty good that you may come across a group of minerals called Serpentine in your rockhounding adventures.
The collecting process is simple.
But astute collectors know the mineralogy and geology of the region before beginning their search.
All of this information will help in identifying and classifying all rock formations.
Before you start your adventure, clarify the specimen collecting limits on public and private property.
Check with local authorities on the requirements before choosing your site.
You might be digging in the foothills of Central or Northern California and discover this precious gemstone.
But, you may unearth a section of a serpentine wall from a building in the 19th Century.
Under Federal law, all artifacts deemed older than 100-years old are classified as archeological resources.
Thus, you must leave the latter site alone.
If you find such a structure, contact local archeological groups for further instruction.
Archeologists love sifting through the remnants of this civilization as these sites are considered serpentine barren.
They feel this group of minerals are an excellent educational tool.
Often, discoveries of this nature help to learn the architectural techniques from this era.
Plus, it is not too often that you get an opportunity to study a group of minerals that runs deep into the earth’s crust.
All of this will help to better understand the history of serpentine and how it was brought to the surface level from the bottom of the ocean.
Serpentine is a very desired gemstone.
However, there is a stigma associated with this group of minerals.
The source of the problem is the rock formation from millions of years ago.
But, the gemstone is quite versatile as many choose serpentine to be a centerpiece for their necklace.