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Montana Town Home to Environmental Disaster

As reported on the news program 20/20 on ABC network (April 7, 2000), nestled in the mountains of Montana, people in the small town of Libby are struggling to come to terms with a tragedy. Hundreds of their friends and neighbors are sick or have died, victims of a silent killer that has been with them for decades. For more than 60 years, Libby's enormous mountain of vermiculite - the worlds largest - supported the areas economy. Vermiculite, a mica-like mineral, was mined in Libby and used in everything from home insulation to plaster products to garden supplies. Recently, though, Libby's residents found that it was tainted with asbestos - a natural but deadly mineral.

People are discovering that the mine, which for so many years breathed life into this town, has slowly been taking it away. In fact, Libby is home to what some are calling the worst single case of asbestos contamination in United States history.

W.R. Grace, one of the companies made infamous in the 1998 movie A Civil Action, owned the mine for 27 years until it closed in 1990. The company acknowledges that people were harmed while the mine was in operation, but claims it took the necessary steps to reduce the risk to its employees. But former workers charge that not enough was done. Many say that they were never even told there was asbestos in dust generated by the mining operation, a charge W.R. Grace denies. What authorities found so striking in Libby, however, was the number of "non-occupational" exposures from the mine. Workers unknowingly brought asbestos-contaminated dust home to their families. Now wives and children - who never worked at the mine - are being diagnosed with, and dying of, severe lung conditions. Asbestos exposure can result in a life-threatening disease known as "asbestosis" which restricts breathing by gradually scarring the lung tissue. It also causes lung or digestive track cancers. There is no way to remove the tiny asbestos fibers from the lungs. Once it enters the body, it remains there forever.

EPA and ATSDR Steps In to Investigate

The Environmental Protection Agency and other state and national health agencies descended on Libby last year, soon after The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that nearly 200 residents died from asbestos-related diseases - and that another 375 are currently sick. The EPA team set out to determine if there is any threat to the area today. Paul Peronard, the agency's onsite coordinator in Libby, is in charge of the investigation. "This is certainly the largest incident at a single facility or workplace involved in terms of number of deaths and illnesses that I know of anywhere in the world," says Peronard.

The EPA has been testing various locations in Libby since December - including more than 100 homes - to determine if airborne asbestos fibers still exist. So far, only a few locations, mainly former mine sites, are considered to have high levels of asbestos. But the EPA is still in the early stages of testing and will continue throughout the year. Investigators do not yet know how many people have been affected by the contaminated vermiculite. Because of the latency period of asbestos-related diseases, it may take 20 to 40 years for the diseases to become evident.

Deaths Reported Outside of Libby

The EPA is also concerned about the processing plants that handled the contaminated vermiculite from Libby. The Montana mine sent much of this product by train to as many as 250 different plants and other facilities in cities all across the United States, possibly exposing thousands more to the asbestos dust. W.R. Grace has acknowledged that past employees from around the country have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases, but the company has also said that it complied with workplace-exposure laws and attempted to protect their workers.

The EPA's Peronard says the agency will investigate exposures in other cities around the country. "What we do want to do is go look at these other processing centers, and see what they look like today," he says. "Some of these might be completely demolished and gone. Some of them might be abandoned and still have the vermiculite present. If that's the case, then we need to evaluate whether there's asbestos in there, and see if we need to do a clean up." The EPA hopes to complete evaluations by June 30. "There could be a lot of mini Libby's across the country," warns Dr. Aubrey Miller, the Medical Coordinator for Environmental Emergencies at the United States Public Health Service in Denver, who is working with the EPA response team in Libby.


The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has received and is acting on requests for assistance from Senator Max S. Baucus and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding human health concerns related to possible exposure to asbestos in the Libby, Montana, area. ATSDR was asked to evaluate human health concerns in Libby that may be related to asbestos. Several public health actions for this site are being developed in collaboration with EPA and state and local officials:

  • Conduct a medical testing program for people who lived or worked in the Libby area during the time of highest exposure.

  • Advise EPA on environmental sampling to develop a better understanding of patterns of exposure.

  • Collect and analyze medical and epidemiologic information to understand the nature and extent of asbestos-related disease in the community.

  • Work with other involved agencies to recommend actions that can be taken to limit further exposure to asbestos and to mitigate or prevent adverse health effects.

  • Provide residents complete and current information on asbestos-related health risks. Work with area physicians and other medical professionals to help them obtain up-to-date information on the diagnosis and treatment of asbestos-related diseases.

Agencies Participating at Libby

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Montana Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), the Lincoln County Environmental Health Department (LCEHD), Montana Department of Environmental Quality and Multimedia Environmental Simulations Laboratory (MESL) at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Planned medical testing program

The planned medical testing program is a joint effort of ATSDR and EPA designed to identify and examine people whose health may have been affected from having been exposed to asbestos in and near Libby, Montana. The program will evaluate program participants' current health status.

Details of the testing program were provided to the public on March 23 and 24 at public availability sessions in the Libby area. Continued public communications on the testing are underway.

The testing program is currently scheduled to begin with phone calls to residents in the Libby area beginning April 25. In these calls residents will be asked a few questions to determine their eligibility to participate.

Persons living outside the Libby area but who want to participate can also call the toll free number beginning April 25 to determine their eligibility: 1-800-439-8308.

The public has been invited to comment on the medical testing protocol. Full copies of the protocol were made available at the ATSDR public availability sessions on March 23 and 24 in Libby, and at the EPA and ATSDR Information Centers. Copies can also be obtained by calling ATSDR toll-free at 1-888-42-ATSDR (1-888-422-8737). Written comments may be sent to: ATSDR, 1600 Clifton Road, ATTN: Dan Middleton, Mail Stop E-31, Atlanta, GA 30333. Comments must be received by ATSDR before close of business on April 18, 2000.

Results of testing

Participants will be notified of the interview results, breathing test, and initial x-ray results via letter at the end of the project.

The x-ray films will be reviewed first by a local radiologist and then by three independent radiologic experts (not from Libby). A letter explaining the x-ray results will be sent to each participant at their home address. The films and a copy of the results letter will be forwarded to the doctor specified by the participant. If a participant is confirmed to have symptoms consistent with asbestos-related lung problems, the participant will be referred to a physician (the participant's personal physician or another qualified physician). Participants who have no current lung problems or symptoms will be instructed to contact their personal physicians if they develop breathing problems in the future.

MESL Study

MESL research program, in cooperation with ATSDR is working with the EPA response team in Libby to evaluate past exposure patterns in the vicinity of Libby and all other processing plant sites where this ore were processed outside of Libby.  In this study air pollution fate and transport models are used to identify past exposure patterns at Libby and other sites.

This page is under construction, please come back to it later to follow the progress made in the study.

The information summarized above is obtained from ABC network's 20/20 News Program , ATSDR and EPA web pages.