Libby Residents Exposed to Asbestos Show Autoimmune Responses, Study Finds

Early Results Show the Body Attacks Own Cells When Exposed to Asbestos

MISSOULA, MT - February 4, 2005 -An early study suggests that exposure to asbestos may lead to autoimmune responses, reactions in which the body attacks its own cells and tissues (Environ Health Perspect. 2005 Jan; 113(1): 25-30). Researchers at the University of Montana examined the blood serum of 50 residents of Libby, Montana, a town that has been declared a Superfund disaster area because it is contaminated with asbestos. The blood serum of the Libby residents was compared with that of 50 residents of Missoula, Montana, of similar age, race, and background. The Missoula group had not been exposed to asbestos.

The Libby residents showed a 28.6% increase in antinuclear antibodies in their blood compared to the blood samples of Missoula residents. Antinuclear antibodies (ANAs) are proteins that react with the nucleus of cells. They are found at higher amounts in people with weakened immune systems. No members of the Missoula group had autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, while six percent of the Libby group had these diseases.

Over three quarters of the Libby group had asbestos-related lung problems. Those with the most severe asbestos diseases had the highest rate of ANAs. Similarly, those who were exposed to asbestos for longer periods had a greater amount of ANAs than did those who were exposed to asbestos for short periods.

The study authors plan to conduct further studies to determine if, and how, autoimmune responses are related to asbestos diseases such as asbestosis and the aggressive cancer, mesothelioma. They would like to find out whether autoimmunity affects the progress of these asbestos diseases.

The Asbestos Problem in Libby, Montana

Libby was the site of an asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine that operated from 1924 to 1990. Many miners developed asbestosis and asbestos-related cancers. Because some miners brought home asbestos dust on their clothes and shoes, members of their household were also affected. In addition, tailings from the mine were spread on roads. Asbestos also contaminated many buildings, schools, and homes in Libby.

Vermiculite is an ore resembling mica that is used in housing insulation, soil conditioners, and fertilizers. "Asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from Libby has been shipped and processed in many sites in the United States, and this material is still used in many applications," the study authors noted. "It therefore remains a significant health risk to humans both occupationally and environmentally, and an awareness of an association with autoimmunity could impact necessary monitoring, testing, and treatment regimens for exposed individuals or populations."

For more details about Libby and vermiculite, see Asbestos in Vermiculite Mines. To learn more about asbestos diseases, see Mesothelioma and Other Asbestos Diseases. If you or a loved one has been exposed to asbestos and developed asbestosis, mesothelioma, or another asbestos disease, please feel free to contact our mesothelioma attorneys at Brayton Purcell to find out about your legal options. We have been successfully handling asbestos litigation since 1984, and work hard to protect the legal rights of our clients.