Long-Term Effects of Asbestos Exposure in Libby, Montana to be Researched

Medical researchers have begun a long-term study into the effects of asbestos exposure in Libby, Montana, a small town where federal officials declared the first public health emergency in history over an epidemic of asbestos-related diseases. The launch of the study coincides with the arrival of medical relief efforts on the ground.

The study will be conducted by researchers from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, the University of Montana and Idaho State University. The universities will work with the Libby Center for Asbestos Related Diseases.

Researchers hope to quantify the risk of asbestos exposure to children, analyze lung scarring caused by asbestos among Libby residents, and investigate how asbestos exposure affects rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and other autoimmune disorders. Researchers expect that the study will take five years to produce results.

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Libby has a population of only 3,000, and the surrounding area has a total of about 12,000 people. However, the EPA estimates that hundreds of residents have died from mesothelioma or asbestosis due to extreme levels of asbestos contamination, and many more have dealt with asbestos-related illnesses.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes that the source of the asbestos exposure is asbestos-laden dust emitted in high amounts from a vermiculite mine outside of town that supplied about 70 percent of the nation’s vermiculite, which contains termolite asbestos. The mine closed in the 1990.

The EPA declared a public health emergency as a result of the Libby asbestos problems this summer and has dedicated more than $130 million to clean up the area and provide proper medical care to residents. Officials estimate that the rate of asbestos-related health problems in Libby are 40 to 60 times the national average and cancer from asbestos exposure is 100 times higher than the national average.

Asbestos exposure can lead to the development of mesothelioma cancer and asbestosis, and the conditions are often not discovered for many years after the exposure. Asbestosis is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that can prove fatal. Mesothelioma is an extremely fatal form of cancer that attacks the lining of the chest and lungs, which can go undetected for decades. Both diseases are contracted through breathing in of asbestos fibers.

The $5 million study is being conducted to assist clean up operations by providing the EPA with a better handle on the scope and effects of asbestos exposure in Libby.

The study begins at the same time as major health care efforts get under way. On November 9, about $6 million in health care grants will begin to be put to work treating patients with asbestos-related diseases, and screening of local residents for health problems caused by asbestos exposure will begin on November 16.

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