Magazine article Science News

Asbestos Exposure Is Prevalent in Mining Community. (More Than a Miner Problem)

Magazine article Science News

Asbestos Exposure Is Prevalent in Mining Community. (More Than a Miner Problem)

Article excerpt

A new study of the residents of Libby, Mont., confirms that even people who don't work with asbestos can have lung abnormalities caused by the mineral. The "striking, very disturbing" findings indicate that asbestos released from mining or manufacturing operations may pose health threats to entire communities, says Christopher P. Weis of the Environmental Protection Agency in Denver.

Research in the late 1970s linked high rates of the lung cancer mesothelioma among miners working for W.R. Grace & Co. in Libby to their inhalation of asbestos from the town's vermiculite mine. Studies elsewhere found that workers who processed Libby's vermiculite, a mineral used in insulation and potting soil, also have high rates of mesothelioma and other lung problems. The government subsequently issued warnings and regulations to reduce occupational asbestos exposures.

In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration halted investigations of asbestos-related health problems in Libby. The data available at that time didn't indicate to environmental regulators that non-occupational exposures to asbestos could be dangerous.

Renewed investigations, spurred in part by newspaper reports about health problems among Libby residents, have "changed our perspective on that completely," says Weis. Libby residents, he says, "have clearly been exposed to high concentrations of asbestos and [consequently] are at higher risk for both noncancer and cancer-related disease."

Since 1999, Weis and his colleagues with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in Atlanta and other government agencies have X-rayed the lungs of 6,668 people who had lived in Libby for at least 6 months before 1991, by which time vermiculite mining had ceased there. The volunteers also answered questions about whether they had participated in any of 29 activities that might have exposed them to asbestos. …

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