In June 2009, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, invoked powers granted it in 1980 for the first time, and declared a public health emergency. The cause: asbestos and the diseases it's caused in two northwest Montana towns. In Libby and Troy Montana, more than 500 people are sick from asbestos related diseases, including asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer caused by inhalation of fibers.
The two towns' populations total about 3900 people, many of who worked in the vermiculite mine in Libby. Vermiculite is a very lightweight mineral used in insulation, and it contains asbestos. In the course of mining and processing it, the tiny fibers become airborne, and workers and town residents inhaled them. Contaminated dust and fibers deposited on workers' clothes, and was carried to their cars, homes, and anywhere else they went.
About 50 more cases of serious asbestos related disease are diagnosed every year in Libby and Troy. Asbestosis causes serious impairment of lung function, and lung cancer and mesothelioma are fatal diseases. Mesothelioma is a very slow-growing cancer, whose symptoms may not be diagnosed for 30 or 40 years after exposure. By the time it is diagnosed, the victim's life expectancy may be measured in months. Because of the long delay between exposure and diagnosis, it's likely that many more cases of mesothelioma will emerge in the coming years.
Recent research has established that exposure to airborne fibers for as little as one or two months can lead to the development of mesothelioma 30-40 years later. The vermiculite mine in Libby, run by W R Grace Co. was closed in 1990, but long-time residents and workers had been exposed for years, some for their entire lives.
Dr Alan Whitehouse, an epidemiologist and asbestos researcher, wrote recently in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine that the mesothelioma epidemic in Libby will continue probably continue to increase, peaking in 10 to 20 years. He called it a very serious public health problem, and argued for greater surveillance of asbestos use, and earlier detection of the disease.
The US Department of Health and Human Services will grant $6 million to the Lincoln County health department. The funds will cover health care for residents suffering from related diseases that is not covered by their insurance, and will pay for all medical expenses for workers who are uninsured.