Feds Investigating Spread of Asbestos Beyond Libby, Montana

If Not Contained Properly, Asbestos Could Spread During Transport

WASHINGTON, D.C.-July 12, 2002-Vermiculite from an asbestos-contaminated mine in Libby, Montana was shipped for processing to 300 sites in 40 states, according to data presented by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) at a recent Senate committee hearing. At least 22 of these sites may now be contaminated with asbestos and require supervised cleanup, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported. Both the EPA and the ATSDR are investigating the problem, concerned about possible environmental asbestos exposure and increased asbestos disease rates in the communities surrounding these sites.

The Asbestos Tragedy in Libby

Although the asbestos-contaminated mine in Libby closed in 1990, many Libby residents have since contracted asbestos diseases such as asbestosis and the cancer mesothelioma, which often take decades to develop (see Tremolite Asbestos in Vermiculite Mines). Federal and local health officials found asbestos in Libby's parks, community centers, homes, and schools, and the town was declared a Superfund disaster area. The Senate called the recent committee hearing to review the health of Libby residents, the progress of the Libby asbestos cleanup, the medical care received by town residents, and the potential for the Libby asbestos crisis to spread to other areas nationwide.

Asbestos Exposure Risk in Other States

Vermiculite is a mineral ore resembling mica that is used in soil conditioners, insulation, fertilizers, and animal feed. Asbestos may have been transported in Libby vermiculite ore that was shipped to other sites for processing into these products. So far, the EPA has identified a high risk of asbestos contamination at sites in New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Minnesota, Colorado, North Dakota, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington.

In Spokane, Washington, Vermiculite Northwest Inc. began producing vermiculite insulation in 1951. Although the plant closed in the early 1970s, recent EPA tests have found that some soil samples from the site still have asbestos concentrations of up to 3%.

In Minneapolis, Minnesota, Western Mineral Inc. (associated with W.R. Grace), produced vermiculite insulation and fireproofing from 1937 to 1989. Plant workers were exposed to levels of asbestos in excess of current occupational standards for most of the time during which the plant was in operation. The company gave away waste rock from vermiculite processing free to local residents. People used this asbestos-containing rock in their yards, driveways, and gardens. At least 100 properties around the former plant became contaminated with asbestos-containing wastes.

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) displayed photos of children playing on the waste rocks at the Western Mineral site. These rocks contained between 2 and 10 percent tremolite asbestos, and produced airborne asbestos concentrations 135 times higher than OSHA's current standard for workers, according to W.R. Grace records quoted by Senator Murray.

Banning Asbestos, Studying Vermiculite

Senator Murray introduced legislation last month that would ban asbestos products and increase funding for mesothelioma research (see New Bill Would Ban Asbestos Products). It would also require the EPA to conduct a public education campaign about the hazards of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite insulation, which may be contained in as many as 35 million United States homes and businesses.

Meanwhile, the ATSDR has developed cooperative agreements with Utah, Colorado, Massachusetts, California, Louisiana, and Wisconsin to conduct health statistics reviews in areas around sites that received vermiculite from Libby. The agency anticipates that other states will also take part in the process.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends that while information is being gathered "vermiculite originating in Libby be considered potentially dangerous." Dr. Michael Spence, the State Medical Officer of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, is more emphatic in his view. "Asbestos mineral contaminated vermiculite has been unequivocally established as causing progressive fatal lung disease as well as a rapidly fatal cancer, mesothelioma, in exposed individuals," he explained at the hearing. "The exposures resulting in illness or death are not limited to mine and millworkers and their families. The problem is not limited to Libby, Montana but is widely disseminated throughout the state of Montana and over many sites in the United States."