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Ethics and Environmental Health

Asbestos Exposure in Libby, MT

ATSDR Involvement in Libby

In 1999, The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) was asked by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to evaluate human health concerns in Libby that were related to asbestos exposure. DHHS was acting on requests received from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Senator Max Baucus of Montana.

Vermiculite mining in and near the city of Libby, Montana began in the 1920's and was continued by the W.R. Grace Company from 1963 until 1990. The vermiculite ore taken from mining operations in Libby was contaminated with tremolite asbestos.

Overview of ATSDR Activities in Libby

ATSDR has conducted and continues to conduct a number activities related to asbestos and Libby. They include:

  • Medical Testing. As part of the public health action plan, ATSDR developed a testing program to identify and examine people whose health may have been affected by asbestos. This project, a part of the Libby Community Environmental Health Project was undertaken by ATSDR with cooperation of the DHHS Region VII Office, EPA, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, and the Lincoln County Environmental Health Department. Click here to read more about the ATSDR medical testing and results.
  • A mortality review, which compared death rates for residents of the Libby area with those in Montana and the United States for selected diseases associated with exposure to asbestos (1979-1998). The review found that for the 20-year period examined, mortality from asbestosis was approximately 40 times higher than the rest of Montana and 60 times higher than the rest of the United States.Click here to read more about it.
  • An asbestos-related disease registry, which will be a listing of individuals with asbestos-related disease or those at high risk of developing asbestos-related disease because of exposure to asbestos. The registry will be used to share information with those in the registry on any new therapies or diagnostic tools developed and to help policymakers and researchers better understand and prepare for treating those with asbestos-related illnesses.
  • ATSDR conducted a study on the usefulness of CT (or computed tomography)-scans in identifying lung problems associated with asbestos exposure. To view the protocol of the study, click here. To view results of the study, click here.
  • Tremolite Asbestos Toxicological Profile, which describes the health effects of exposure to tremolite asbestos. Peer-reviewed profiles identify and review the key literature that describes a hazardous substance's toxicologic properties.
  • Case Series, which involves a review of medical records, radiographs, and CT-scans of patients with asbestos-related disease to learn more about asbestos-related illness among people with only environmental (not work-related) exposure to asbestos.
  • ATSDR will continue to assess the impact of asbestos-related conditions in the Libby area in conjunction with EPA, other HHS agencies, the State of Montana, and members of the community.

Other Health and Human Services (HHS) Agencies Involved in Libby

Other HHS agencies also made a major commitment to the Libby community and continue to provide support.

The Health Resources Services Administration (HRSA) awarded funds for a community health center (CHC) in Libby. The CHC will provide primary care services for all of Lincoln County. Its focus is on providing selected primary care services to those in the community who are medically underserved. According to HRSA officials, the CHC should receive at least $400,000 per year and can continue in perpetuity. The CHC is governed by a community board that decides on services and treatments to be provided through the clinic. As funding is limited, the board will have to make hard decisions to fairly distribute services to both those with asbestos-related diseases and other illnesses.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) will provide $80,000 as a contract to the hospital for psychological and social services, education, and outreach for those affected by asbestos-related problems. The initial contract is for one year and started in August, 2001. Designation as a "Health Professional Shortage Area" (HPSA) makes the community eligible to compete for HRSA programs that place health professionals in high-need areas through loan repayment incentives.

Locations where Libby asbestos-containing vermiculite was shipped

ATSDR is currently reviewing locations where vermiculite from the Libby mines may have been shipped by rail as a commercial product. A complete record of shipments is being reviewed, and sites are being visited to assess risk to workers and consumers. A record of this review, along with actions to be taken at each site, will be available upon completion of the study.

For More Information

For more information on Libby, MT, visit the EPA's web page on Libby and see the ATSDR Studies section.

Joanne Cox / Robert Searfoss

Photos courtesy of Dudley Dana, Dana Gallery