Up to 30% tested in Libby hurt by asbestos
Montana mining town residents hear findings of health survey
By Carol Smith, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 24, 2001
LIBBY, Mont. — Ron Masters, 49, never worked in the asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine here. Neither did his 24-year-old son. But both are among more than 1,000 residents whose lung abnormalities have just been documented by a federal study of widespread asbestos-related disease here.
“I can’t walk like I used to. I can’t get out of my rig and go hunting. I can’t run 50 feet from here to the street,” said Masters, a former avid outdoorsman. “I can’t get enough air.”
The nation’s largest environmental health study found a rate of lung abnormalities of 18 percent among the 5,590 tested adults, all of whom had lived, worked or played here before the W.R. Grace Co. mine closed in 1990.
And that’s a conservative estimate based on two of three experts agreeing in each case. In 30 percent of the cases, one expert found abnormalities, said the study director, Dr. Jeffrey Lybarger, who presented results to Libby residents last night at a packed meeting at City Hall.
Lung abnormalities are often an early sign of fatal or disabling asbestos-related disease, which can emerge 20 years or longer after exposure to asbestos. The rate of abnormalities found in the study is strikingly high compared with the normal range of 0.2 percent to 2.3 percent among people with no known asbestos exposure.
The Agency For Toxic Substances and Disease Registry launched the $6 million health study after a 1999 Seattle Post-Intelligencer investigation found that hundreds had died or been diagnosed with fatal asbestos-related disease associated with the mine that for decades covered the town and nearby mountainside with a fine white dust.
No other community in the country has been affected so broadly by asbestos contamination. “This is one of the few cases, and certainly the largest in the U.S., where the exposure and abnormalities are extending beyond the workers and immediate family,” Lybarger said.
For decades, mine workers took pinkish vermiculite ore from nearby Zonolite Mountain, not knowing it contained deadly tremolite asbestos fibers. W.R. Grace has maintained that it knew nothing of the danger from the contaminated ore and that, until the P-I investigation, it had no reason to believe there was a continuing environmental problem.
In its heyday, the mine produced 80 percent of the world’s vermiculite. It was the area’s largest employer from 1924 to 1990. At times its largest stack spewed 10,000 pounds of asbestos each day, according to W.R. Grace figures cited by lawyers for asbestos victims.
The federal health study — designed to identify asbestos exposure and help determine treatment needs — included chest X-rays, lung tests and face-to-face interviews with 6,149 adults and children. Residents were asked if they ever worked for W.R. Grace or lived with workers who may have brought asbestos home on their clothes, for example, or if they ever played at the ball field near the W.R. Grace plant or in the piles of vermiculite around town.
Most people in the study were exposed to asbestos in more than one way.
In presenting results to the public last night, the toxic substances agency said that nearly 1,000 of the 5,590 adults in the study had lung abnormalities — a rate of 18 percent. The agency also said it found abnormalities in 159 of the 328 former W.R. Grace mineworkers participating in the medical tests — a rate of 48 percent.
Those conservative estimates are based on instances in which two out of three experts reading each chest radiograph spotted abnormalities. The 30 percent rate, cited by Lybarger in an interview, is based on instances in which one of three experts found abnormalities. It is consistent with the 30 percent rate of lung abnormalities revealed in preliminary findings announced by the agency in February.
The latest findings confirmed the worst fears of those who have spent years watching friends and neighbors — including those who never worked at the mine — succumb to lung diseases.
“I’m one of the innocent ones who never set foot” in the mine, Masters said. “We lived 2 1/2 or 3 miles from where they stored (ore), and I played baseball near there since I was 8.”
Diane Keck, 62, is another victim. Keck’s grandmother built the town funeral parlor, and her father was the funeral director in the 1940s.
“He noticed the miners dying,” said Keck, who used to play in the Zonolite piles. “He told me, ‘Something’s wrong. Don’t go over there to play.'”
Keck moved from Libby when she was 13, but moved back in the early 1990s to retire in this peaceful valley. A lifelong non-smoker, she was shocked when she started having trouble breathing and was told she’d been exposed to asbestos.
That was before the dangers of Libby were widely known. The recent health study confirmed the diagnosis. One of her four siblings also has been diagnosed.
She wonders now about her grandmother. “She died on the oxygen tank,” she said. “Back then, they just called it smokers’ disease.”
About 120 people attended last night’s meeting, listening raptly as federal and state officials presented the stark numbers and discussed “routes of exposure” to asbestos.
“My primary exposure route is the fact I lived in Libby for most of my life,” said Clinton Maynard, whose father worked at the mine.
Maynard questioned why just breathing the air was not listed as possible exposure. Lybarger said, “You’re correct that ambient exposure probably did occur.”
Lybarger said the study findings support the need for more testing as the current population ages. The toxic substances agency already has enrolled an additional 800 people for more screening in a second phase of the study, which will extend through September.
So far, 84 percent of those screened have been Montana residents, although the agency is advertising in major news outlets to reach people around the country who might be eligible. To be eligible, people must have either worked for W.R. Grace, or lived, worked or played in Libby for at least six months prior to Dec. 31, 1990.
Gayla Benefield lost both parents to the ravages of asbestos disease and has fought for a quarter of a century to bring them justice. Now both Benefield and her husband, as well as their oldest daughter, have been diagnosed with abnormalities in their lungs. In her extended family, 37 people have signs of the disease.
Seated at the kitchen-table headquarters where she commands a regiment of victim volunteers, Benefield runs through a litany of friends and family members who are sick and dying.
The normally unflappable Benefield has to stop talking briefly when she thinks about her 11 grandchildren, many of whom played at a contaminated elementary school site. “My babies being exposed — I took that real hard,” she said.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which is managing a massive emergency cleanup in Libby, identified the field used as an ice rink at the Plummer Elementary School as a hot spot last spring and finished a cleanup this summer. A similar cleanup is under way at the town middle school and high school.
At the high school, in fact, EPA cleanup supervisor Duc Nguyen said the agency will have to destroy all the track and football equipment because it is too expensive to decontaminate..
Six miles out of town, federal workers are detoxifying the land at the foot of Zonolite Mountain where W.R. Grace screened the vermiculite into different-sized grades before sending it for processing.
Yesterday, an eagle circled over the cement crushers and men in hazardous-waste suits as they loaded trucks to be hauled up the mountain, where the waste will be sealed forever in the now-closed mine.
The EPA was not satisfied with Grace’s cleanup and has ordered the demolition of remaining contaminated buildings on the site beginning Monday, Nguyen said last night.