Libby, Montana

Libby, Montana came to the nation’s attention when health workers discovered that over 400 people have died of asbestos-related diseases in the small town of 3,000. Libby is located on the Kootenai River and is now known as the deadliest region in the United States for asbestos-related illnesses. The asbestos exposure at Libby, Montana has been linked to the W.R. Grace mine, which is a major employer and located just outside the town. X-ray examinations show that 1,500 local workers and their family members who were exposed now show signs of asbestos scarring on their lungs.

History of Libby, Montana

Libby was established in the 1800s as a mining town and fur-trading outpost. The purpose of the mine was to extract vermiculite, a safe natural material used in many industrial applications. However, the vermiculite was not the only material in the mine. Up to 80 percent of the ore from the mine is composed of materials other than vermiculite. The mine was purchased by W.R. Grace in 1963, producing a record 2 million tons of ore annually throughout the 1970s. Unfortunately, another substance in the ore was identified as asbestos as early as 1964, though the mine continued to operate well into the 1990s.

Worker Illness

Asbestos exposure of miners at the W.R. Grace site has been an ongoing problem. A study conducted as far back as the 1980s showed that 70 percent of workers at the mines had asbestos fibers embedded in their lungs. However, it was not until news reports exposed the issue that cleanup processes were initiated. Before the cleanup, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated the process would take two years to complete and cost $5.8 million. Ten years and $333 million later, asbestos continues to be found in the town as people continue to be diagnosed with fatal diseases like mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a cancer resulting from asbestos exposure. This disease occurs when asbestos fibers are embedded in the lining of the lungs, heart, and abdomen. Once inside these tissues, asbestos becomes a carcinogen that the body cannot fight off.  In 2009, The EPA declared a health emergency in Libby, Montana. Most experts feel this declaration was long overdue.

Asbestos Cleanup

Some experts claim that cleanup of the site is impossible, warning residents to leave the area if possible. Some even advocate for a total relocation of the town. However, residents are fiercely loyal. The plan for relocating the town was flatly refused and even now many remain hesitant to move. Nevertheless, the local clinic in town continues to diagnose 15 to 20 new cases of asbestos-related illnesses every month. Patients are expected to be diagnosed at a similar rate for the next ten years because of the long latency period between asbestos exposure and the emergence of disease. References:
  • Brown, Matthew. (May 5, 2010) “Asbestos contamination still taking toll on town.” Retrieved on April 10, 2011 from MSNBC.
  • EPA