Harmful asbestos exposure from a now-closed vermiculite mining operation has caused the rural town of Libby, Montana to become a major crisis in both public and environmental health in the U.S.
On November 18, 1999, writer Andrew Schneider of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer broke the story revealing there had been hundreds of illnesses and deaths in Libby over the past 70 years resulting from asbestos exposure associated with Libby’s vermiculite mining and milling operations. In 2002 Libby was added to the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s “National Priorities List.”
At first investigators assumed that those sickened were all workers at the nearby mine. But the illnesses weren’t appearing only in mine workers. Family members were stricken, too, as were residents of the town who had nothing to do with the mining business.
Investigations by alarmed government agencies — including the E.P.A, the Geological Survey and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences — established that miners brought asbestos fibers back to town with them on clothes, vehicles and other possessions. Residents, including children, not associated with mining also received asbestos exposure because the mining companies had provided vermiculite for the construction of ball fields, school running tracks, playgrounds, public buildings and facilities, as well as for private gardens and house and business insulation. The crisis in Libby suggested to researchers that people were being sickened by far smaller exposures than had been thought to cause harm.
Intensive clean-up efforts by E.P.A. are ongoing and research efforts are underway to explore asbestos exposure and disease development in Libby. E.P.A. has set up websites to help Libby residents cope with asbestos exposure. Here is their advice:
If you suspect you have a significant exposure to asbestos, there are some things you should do:
- Stop on-going exposures.
- Stop exposure to tobacco smoke.
- Get regular health checkups.
- Get prompt medical attention for any respiratory illness to prevent infections that can attack weakened lungs.
See Your Doctor
Individuals exposed to asbestos should inform their doctor of their history and any symptoms. An exam, including a chest x-ray and a lung function test, may be recommended.
Symptoms may not become apparent until long after exposure. If you have any of the following symptoms, you should consult your doctor without delay:
- Shortness of breath.
- A cough or a change in cough pattern.
- Blood in the fluid coughed up
- Pain in the chest or abdomen.
- Difficulty in swallowing or prolonged hoarseness.
- Significant weight loss.