Libby, Montana, the former home of the W.R. Grace asbestos mines, has devolved from a small, tight-knit community into a synonym for an environmental disaster. The town of three thousand residents has become the home of the most toxic site in the history of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund. Many of the residents have contracted respiratory disorders, including mesothelioma, due to their exposure to toxic asbestos fibers.
The EPA and other environmental agencies deal with the impact on the picturesque mountainside landscape. A project that was expected to take two years has taken ten. The early estimates on the cost of the project, just shy of $6 million, have increased to over $300 million. New asbestos discoveries around the site, from school athletic fields to private homes, continue to keep the project going and the costs rising with no end in sight.
Meanwhile, health care professionals are faced with the daunting task of caring for the town’s patients. Estimates put the death toll due to asbestos exposure at over four hundred, with thousands more expected to succumb to lung disease. Some of the victims worked directly with the dangerous mineral, either in the mines or in the manufacturing plants. Others were exposed through insulation in their homes or mine tailings dumped onto local playing fields.
With the prevalence of asbestos throughout the town, the toll in medical costs and eventual death from lung disease is also expected to rise. Local hospitals treat up to twenty new patients per month. Some of these new patients, as young as their late twenties or early thirties, were exposed to asbestos as children at ball fields and in school buildings. Observers expect the incidence rates of diseases such as mesothelioma to continue to rise in the area over the next ten to fifteen years.
Dr. Brad Black, director of the new Center for Asbestos Related Diseases in Libby, examined a thirty-six-year-old man who had shown signs of lung damage due to asbestos exposure. The patient was too young to have worked in the mines or factories. Dr. Black theorizes that the man’s exposure came as a result of visiting a childhood friend’s home that had been contaminated.
One of the factors that will cause the increased incidence rate for asbestos-related diseases in Libby is the long latency period these diseases carry. In many cases, exposure to toxic substances forces the body into an immediate reaction. In the case of asbestos, the fibers work their way through the lungs like glass daggers, damaging sensitive tissue with every breath. Eventually, the fibers rest in the pleural mesothelium, the band of soft tissue that lines and protects the lungs.
When the fibers reach the pleural mesothelium, patients develop malignant pleural mesothelioma, an aggressive and deadly form of cancer. Patients may not exhibit the symptoms of mesothelioma for up to twenty years after their initial exposure period. Once the patients show symptoms, the disease often progresses swiftly throughout the body. At this stage, patients typically survive between twelve and eighteen months.
Source: Associated Press