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Coping With Asbestos Exposure: Advice to the Residents of Libby, Montana

asbestos exposureHarmful 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:

  1. Stop on-going exposures.
  2. Stop exposure to tobacco smoke.
  3. Get regular health checkups.
  4. 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.

$43 Million Asbestos Settlement Approved for Libby Victims

asbestos mineFew communities in the world have been as heavily affected by asbestos as Libby, Montana, and those suffering from asbestos-related diseases in the town recently received a bit of good news.

District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock in Helena approved a $43 million settlement from the state that will go to those suffering from asbestosis, malignant mesothelioma and other illnesses, according to The Associated Press.

Libby is the former home of the W.R. Grace vermiculite mine, which brought large quantities of asbestos to the surface. The heavy exposure to the substance that those in the area endured exacted a devastating toll, reportedly killing 400 people through asbestos diseases and sickening nearly 2,000 more.

The plaintiffs claimed that state officials knew that the asbestos was causing harm but did nothing to prevent it from happening.

Asbestos Settlement too Late for Some

Asbestosis sufferer Mike Nelson, who has signed up for the settlement, told the news source that any asbestos compensation he receives from the deal can’t cover the devastating losses he has been forced to endure.

“I’ve lost my father, my mother, my stepmother and my father-in-law,” he told the AP. “They’re all dead. All from asbestos… W.R. Grace was the one responsible, but right now, I hate my government. The state knew. (The money) isn’t going to do anything for me.”

Thousands of people are likely in the same boat as Nelson, having lost family and friends needlessly due to corporations and officials conveniently ignoring the fact that asbestos exposure kills.

Medical Evidence Impossible to Ignore

Asbestos exposure has been known to cause malignant mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer since the mid-1960s, a fact that a number of companies like W.R. Grace – which only closed the mine in the early 1990s – largely ignored.

One of the plaintiff’s asbestos attorneys said that the medical evidence presented in the case was too much for the court to overlook, according to Daily Inter Lake.

“We believe that a factor in the state’s willingness to settle was that we had assembled so much medical proof that the state was unlikely to win by calling doctors to dispute the findings of the doctors at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease (CARD) clinic in Libby,” the asbestos lawyer reportedly wrote to his clients.

New Asbestos Threat Emerges in Libby, Montana

wood chip pileThe people of Libby, Montana, are perhaps more aware about the dangers posed by asbestos than anyone else in the U.S.

The W.R. Grace vermiculite mine that operated for decades near the town brought a great deal of the naturally occurring carcinogen to the surface. People in Libby and the surrounding areas were exposed to asbestos and many subsequently contracted illnesses such as asbestosis, lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma, a rare cancer that attacks the thin membrane that lines the body’s chest, abdomen and multiple internal organs.

According to the Associated Press, such asbestos-related diseases have claimed the lives of about 400 people in the town. An additional 1,750 are estimated to have contracted such a disease.

Now, the people in the town are facing another asbestos threat in the form of two large piles of woodchips and bark that contain asbestos, reports the news source.

AP Investigation into Piles

The AP conducted an investigation into the piles, which have been used by residents and the town in parks and near schools. In addition, the news source reports that the federal government has known that the piles contained asbestos for at least three years.

According to the news source, the Environmental Protection Agency did not prevent people from taking the material away until the AP began its investigation.

“We thought we were coming to an end and now we have this issue all over again,” said Lerah Parker, a resident who has used the woodchips.

Asbestos-tainted Woodchips Widely Used

According to local officials, about 1,000 tons of the material has been used throughout Libby for both erosion control and landscaping. In addition, an official told the news source that as much as 15,000 tons of the material were sold and taken to unknown destinations over the past decade.

Parker showed the AP her property, which contained hundreds of plantings such as trees and bushes that were all ringed with the asbestos-tainted woodchips.

EPA Responds to AP

According to the news source, the EPA said in a written statement that previous tests on the piles were too inconclusive to determine that the material in the piles posed an immediate threat to the area.

The federal agency, which has spent $370 million cleaning up Libby over the past 11 years, said that it would look further into the woodchips and create guidelines regarding how the material should be handled.

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