MAC: Mines and Communities

Legacy of Libby's asbestos contamination still being set

Published by MAC on 2007-04-21

Legacy of Libby's asbestos contamination still being set

By MARY PICKETT , Billings Gazette

21st April 2007

Nearly eight years after an environmental and health crisis in northwest Montana came to national attention, a Libby clinic continues to treat patients with diseases linked to asbestos exposure.

Along with tracking 1,500 patients, the Center for Asbestos Related Disease hopes to help develop new treatments, and perhaps a cure, for those diseases.

Brad Black, the center's medical director, will be among the speakers at an April 24 medical history conference in Bozeman, which will address the health effects of mining.

Until 1990, vermiculite was mined near Libby for 70 years, the last 27 by W.R. Grace & Co. Because Libby vermiculite deposits lay near veins of asbestos, the two became mixed during mining.

Miners and mill workers were exposed to the asbestos, and their families and other Libby residents were, too.

During processing of the vermiculite, asbestos was released into the air, in particularly heavy amounts in the 1950s and 1960s. Residents also were exposed to asbestos through vermiculite used in public parks, school tracks, baseball fields and insulation in schools.

Black came to Libby in 1977 to practice as a pediatrician in partnership with an internist. Black's partner, who began seeing some of the early cases of lung disease related to asbestos, tried to get W.R. Grace to screen its employees for asbestos-related diseases.

By the 1980s, the state health department also was aware of high levels of asbestos in Libby, Black said.

The situation was a "public-health failure all the way through," he said.

By the time Black arrived in Libby, less asbestos was in the air.

By the 1990s, asbestos-related diseases were showing up in people who had just lived in Libby and had never been miners.

In 1999, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran articles noting that 192 people had died and at least 375 had been sickened by illnesses linked to asbestos.

Libby became one of the EPA's Superfund sites, with millions of dollars spent on cleaning up the town.

In 2005, W.R. Grace and seven senior employees were indicted in federal court on charges that they knowingly endangered employees and the community by exposing them to vermiculite containing asbestos. A trial on the charges still is pending.

In 2000-01, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry did a communitywide screening with X-rays and breathing tests that showed about 19 percent of the population had abnormalities consistent with exposure to asbestos. Similar tests of other groups of people, such as patients in veterans' hospitals, show about 2 percent of people had such abnormalities.

"We knew then that we had a large problem and expected to see a lot more" asbestos-related diseases, Black said.

The problem isn't limited to Montana.

Asbestos-laced vermiculite was shipped to other parts of the country to be processed, and the ATSDR is checking into at least 26 of those sites.

The Center for Asbestos Related Disease was spun off from the hospital in Libby in 2003 and now screens and cares for patients who live in Libby or once did. The center is funded through insurance payments that W.R. Grace voluntarily began offering in 2001. The center is seeking other financial sources to ensure stability, Black said.

The center is run by a volunteer board, some of whose members have diseases linked to asbestos.

The center is collaborating with other research institutions across the country on projects related to asbestos disease.

One project is a community health assessment done through Montana State University in Bozeman. In conjunction with the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, the center is studying a blood marker to detect cancer early. Mesothelioma is an aggressive form of cancer caused by asbestos.

Next month, the center will start a large research project with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health that compares conventional X-rays with digital X-rays.

The center's research also is important because Libby asbestos is different from the most widely found asbestos and has never been studied before.

Unlike the more common chrysotile asbestos, which is serpentine-shaped and flexible, Libby asbestos has hard, needlelike fibers.

Just how many deaths have occurred because of exposure to asbestos is hard to say, but Black considers the 192 deaths mentioned in the 1999 newspaper article a very conservative number.

He has seen 10 cases of mesothelioma in people who never were miners but had lived in Libby, a community of about 2,600.

For a small community, Black said, "that's a lot."

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