In the small town of Libby, Montana, where former vermiculite mining at the W.R. Grace mine has led to a great many asbestos illnesses, including mesothelioma, a new study is aimed at determining the reason for the inexplicable rapidity and morbidity of these diseases by examining former Libby High School students.
Libby and the W.R. Grace mine are jointly the site of a Superfund site of such catastrophic proportions that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which manages and remediates such polluted environments, is finding itself under the gun to clean up the town – a project once estimated to cost $5.6 million, but already exceeding $333 million in actual costs.
The former W.R. Grace mine, which suspended operations in 1990 after operating for six decades as a vermiculite mine, has reportedly been the cause of more than 400 deaths and countless illnesses in Libby. The vermiculite was sold all over the world; the ore, which was crushed to release the vermiculite, was 80 percent asbestos, much of which escaped into the open air, and into the town, when it was dumped. Unsold vermiculite containing asbestos was also given to residents to use as a soil amendment, and used as fill in development projects. The burden, as the EPA is now finding out, is almost overwhelming.
It has been a decade since the site was first given Superfund status, yet in spite of all the remediation the asbestos keeps reappearing, and EPA workers in hazmat suits are considered a common sight in yards, schools, businesses and even shopping venues.
In spite of all these efforts, asbestos-related diseases keep cropping up, and according to Dr. Stephen M. Levin of New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine, they act more quickly, and are more aggressive, than the typical scenario.
The study among former Libby high-schoolers is particularly relevant because lungs are in a constant state of development until a human reaches about the age of 18. This means that those who lived in Libby as children and adolescents will presumably exhibit more lung damage, as a result of asbestos fibers, than older people living in the town, or even those older folks who have moved away.
Asbestos causes asbestosis, a chronic respiratory disease similar to emphysema which usually occurs only after long and typically intense exposure to asbestos fibers, in either a mining or industrial (or work) environment; for example, boiler workers and insulators.
Asbestos fibers also cause a form of lethal cancer called mesothelioma, which usually exhibits as malignant pleural mesothelioma, or MPM, in the mesothelial tissues that surround and protect the lungs.
These cancers, which can also occur in the lining around the heart and the one around abdominal organs, though much less often, typically lie dormant for a number of decades, producing only a few symptoms that are easily mistaken for bronchitis, asthma, or even chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
A diagnosis of mesothelioma often occurs as a result of testing for other illnesses, but – once arrived at – generally results in a prognosis of about a year to live. This prognosis is only slightly improved, in some instances, by aggressive therapies involving surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, which are used largely as palliative measures to reduce pain and improve breathing.
The study will begin in June, and will attempt to compare the W.R. Grace form of asbestos to that of more common forms sold commercially. It will also study the link between asbestos exposure and autoimmune diseases like lupus, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Funding for the study currently stands at $4.8 million.
Sources: Associate Press, Seattle Post-Intelligencier.