Asbestos Testing Continues in Libby, Montana

High Incidence of Diseases Attributed to Contaminated Vermiculite

LIBBY, MONTANA-June 8, 2001-Located on Zonolite Mountain, in the heart of Libby, Montana, is a mine that is contaminated with tremolite asbestos. In operation from 1924 through 1990, the W.R. Grace mine produced asbestos-containing vermiculite, a material used primarily in soil conditioners and insulation.

Many Libby miners developed asbestos-related diseases. They also unknowingly brought the fatal asbestos dust home on their work clothes, endangering family members. Now the government is studying the risk to the general public, finding that asbestos has made its way into Libby's schools, public buildings, and homes.

Residents of Libby, Montana and surrounding areas are going through the second round of asbestos screening. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking samples from homes, focusing on the problem of asbestos exposure from household activities such as cleaning, dusting, sweeping, remodeling, and rototilling a garden (Libby Update, EPA Region VIII, March 28, 2001). The EPA is also checking ball fields, elementary schools, daycare centers, and city parks for asbestos contamination.

The first series of screenings by the EPA revealed unacceptable levels of asbestos in some areas of Libby. A recent preliminary EPA report found asbestos-contaminated tailings, which were transported from the mine, in the subsurface of two high school running tracks. Asbestos fibers were also found on the main road leading to the mine. And asbestos-containing vermiculite was used in home insulation and as fill and soil conditioners in public areas.

Studies Show Health of Residents Compromised

A report by the Agency for Toxic Studies and Disease Registry (ATSDR) indicates that between 1979 and 1998, the rate of death from asbestos-related diseases for Libby residents was 60 times higher than the national average. Another ATSDR study, based on preliminary medical screenings, shows that 25% of Libby residents who had no ties to the mine have signs of asbestos-related diseases (The Montanian Newspaper, February 28, 2001, click on News Bulletin). Further medical testing, which will occur in August, 2001, is expected to include 2,000 study participants in addition to the 6,144 already screened.

Asbestos Vermiculite Products Shipped Nationwide

But the vermiculite problem will not remain confined to Libby. The W.R. Grace mine provided at least 80% of the world's supply of vermiculite. In one estimate, the ore was sent to more than 60 processing plants in the United States and Canada, where workers became ill with lung-related diseases (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 22, 1999).

Zonolite, an asbestos-contaminated vermiculite insulation product, has been used in millions of attics nationwide. And soil conditioners containing contaminated vermiculite may still be on store shelves.

Libby, Montana, now part of an EPA Emergency Response Plan, has become a symbol of the American asbestos disaster. It illustrates the destruction that asbestos can cause, not only to workers, but to the environment and later, to an unsuspecting public.