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Asbestos-Related Public Health Emergency Declared by EPA in Montana

Armen Hareyan's picture
Asbestos related emergency

Yesterday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared it’s first public health emergency. Using the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), the EPA declared that the asbestos-related conditions in Libby and Troy, Montana were a serious threat to the public health of the area.

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson made the announcement in a joint press conference with Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester. Libby and Troy are two small communities in northwest Montana where there have been hundreds of documented asbestos-related diseases over the past several years.

The citizens of the communities were exposed to high levels of asbestos from the vermiculite mines which has been inactive since 1990. The vermiculite was discovered by gold miners in 1881. In the 1920s the Zonolite Company formed the vermiculite mining company which was later purchased by W.R. Grace in 1963. It is estimated that the Libby mine was the source of over 70 percent of all vermiculite sold in the United States from 1919 to 1990.

Investigations have found the incidence of occurrence of asbestosis, a lung condition, in the Libby area staggeringly higher than the national average for the period from 1979-1998. EPA is working closely with the Department of Health and Human Services, which is making available a short-term grant to provide needed asbestos-related medical care to Libby and Troy residents.

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Two HHS agencies (the Health Resources and Services Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) will support a new grant to assist affected residents who need medical care which should be awarded in August of this year. Local officials are currently putting together a grant proposal that will lay out options for provision of medical care that will work for the residents of Lincoln County.

Asbestosis is a respiratory disease brought on by inhaling asbestos fibers which can cause scar tissue (fibrosis) to form inside the lung. Scarred lung tissue does not expand and contract normally, and cannot perform gas exchange.

The severity of the disease depends on how long the person was exposed to asbestos and the amount inhaled. Often, symptoms and lung fibrosis do not occur and are not noticed for a period of 20 years or more after the asbestos exposure.

Asbestos-related disease includes pleural plaques (calcification), malignant mesothelioma, and pleural effusion. Mesotheliomas may develop 20 - 40 years after exposure. Workers today are less likely to develop asbestos-related disease because of government regulations.

More information: http://www.epa.gov/libby

Department of Health and Human Services
National Library of Medicine