Libby, Montana faces new asbestos-related threats

While exploring northwestern Montana in 1916, prospectors made a unique discovery in the mountains that would forever affect the people in the nearby town of Libby.  This strange mineral was resistant to high heat and fire, making it ideal for construction materials.

Mining began three years later of the vermiculite, called Zonolite by the early owners. For the next 50 years, they continued to dig and ship it across North America for various uses, including insulation. Unfortunately, the mine and the mineral contained something deadly- asbestos.

In 1963, W.R. Grace and Company purchased the business right as the dangers of asbestos were becoming more documented and apparent in society. Claiming to have no knowledge of the dangers, W.R. Grace allowed mining to continue until 1990 when it closed.

Through the 1980s, Zonolite mountain miners and their families began falling ill and dying of asbestos-related diseases. Hundred of people contracted these illnesses at an alarming rate of 40 times higher than the entire United States.

The asbestos fibers clung to the clothing of the miners, invading their homes and infecting their spouses and children. The mine’s products were distributed around town, in homes and on playgrounds, risking exposure for all.

In 1999, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer developed a series devoted to the tragedy in Libby and finally the city and its people gained national attention. Soon after publication, the Environmental Protection Agency arrived to determine the full extent of the problem.

After more than a decade, 900,000 cubic yards of asbestos-filled materials were removed and 1,460 business and residences were cleaned with much more work to be completed. Training was done to give residents the ability to recognize asbestos without help because the EPA believes even when the clean up is finished, there’s no guarantee all contaminated materials will be removed.

During the early years of the cleanup, the Centers for Disease Control screened more than 7,000 residents and found higher rates of rheumatoid arthritis, systemic sclerosis and lupus than previously expected. Among other diseases and conditions typically associated with asbestos exposure, researchers are currently finding a novel autoimmune disease in Libby residents.

This progressive pulmonary illness begins with the production of autoantibodies and then the connective tissues around the lungs begin scarring, causing many to develop infections. Pain is common because the scar tissue limits elasticity of the lungs, making breathing a challenge as well.

When W.R. Grace owned the mines for approximately 30 years, almost 10 million pounds of vermiculite was mined and then sent to more than 500 addresses in the United States and almost 200 in Canada. The insulation lined many homes and business, including the World Trade Centers that collapsed following the 9/11 attacks. The resulting dust and debris covered lower Manhattan, exposing New Yorkers to unquantifiable amounts of asbestos from the mountains in Montana.

Although acquitted of charges claiming W.R. Grace knew the dangers of asbestos, hundreds of thousands of lawsuits have been filed, citing asbestos-related cancers or asbestosis. Prior to closing the mine, W.R. Grace was under fire in Massachusetts for dumping chemicals into a water supply, causing high rates of leukemia in the area.

Many view asbestos as a problem of the past, but the deadly effects continue to plague countries around the world today. Some of these countries, including the United States, haven’t banned the dangerous fibers. Diseases can take decades to develop, often surfacing when it is too late for anything to be done.

This magic mineral continues to kill around the world.

Footnotes

Asbestos.com. (n.d.). Libby. Asbestos Exposure. [Link]

Walsh, N. (2014). Asbestos revisited: A new autoimmune disease? MedPage Today. [Link]

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