Asbestos and Mesothelioma Leads to “Public Health Emergency”

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has officially announced its plan for cleaning up parts of the Montana community contaminated for more than 70 years by deadly asbestos.  Libby, Montana was the sight of a major vermiculite mine that spewed themesothelioma causing mineral, asbestos, across the town until it was closed in 1990.  EPA now says a combination of soil removal and containment should be used to keep asbestos that is in the ground from reaching the air around two vermiculite processing areas.

The latest cleanup plans are part of a massive decade-long effort by the EPA and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to protect Libby residents from the dangers of continued asbestos exposure.  People in Libby already suffer from asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma at a rate 40 to 80 times greater than the national average.

The W.R. Grace Company ran a huge mining, processing and exporting business from multiple sites in Libby, churning out thousands of pounds of the popular vermiculite insulation known as Zonolite.  But in 2009, after asbestos contamination from the site had been implicated in nearly 300 deaths (including mesothelioma) and thousands of illnesses, the EPA declared the situation a ‘public health emergency’.  It marked the first time that the EPA had made the declaration about a contaminated community and it opened the way for the Montana town to get immediate federal Superfund money for cleanup.

Eight areas around Libby have been identified as danger zones by the EPA, although the former export plant itself was located just north of downtown along the Kootenai River.  The latest cleanup efforts will mean removal of large amounts of contaminated soil from several sites.  Where it is not practical or necessary to remove soil, fresh soil will be brought in to ‘cap’ the contamination below the surface.  The goal is to restore the sites so that they can be reused in development.

Although the latest EPA announcement may help make Libby residents safer, it does nothing to address the danger that still exists from Zonolite insulation in thousands of homes and businesses.  Exposure to the insulation, which is filled with tiny shards of cancer-causing asbestos, can put a person at risk for a host of serious pulmonary issues, including the aggressive cancer mesothelioma.  To minimize the risk of exposure, the EPA recommends that homeowners not disturb or try to remove vermiculite insulation themselves but leave the job to trained abatement professionals.


“EPA Plans Soil Excavation, Containment in Libby”, Associated Press, May 11, 2010. Flathead Beacon. Kalispell, MT.
“EPA, MDEQ Sign Records of Decision for Libby Asbestos Site”, May 11, 2010. EPA Website.  Accessed May 12, 2010.
Daly, Matthew. “EPA declares health emergency in Montana town”, June 17, 2009. Associated Press.

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