Researchers assessing health impacts of one of the nation's largest environmental disasters

Nov 02, 2009

Over nearly a century, thousands of residents and workers in Libby, MT, have been exposed to asbestos-contaminated vermiculite ore, leading to markedly higher rates of lung disease and autoimmune disorders, and causing to Libby in 2002 to be added to the federal Environmental Protection Agency's "National Priorities List."

Researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, leading a team of investigators from four institutions, are now launching three investigations into disease pathology in the town and to determine recommended cleanup efforts.

The Principal Investigator of the project is Stephen Levin, MD, Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a nationally known expert in occupational medicine and asbestos-related diseases who has also served as PI of the nationwide World Trade Center Medical Monitoring & Treatment Program, coordinated by Mount Sinai since 2002.

"The asbestos-related disease in Libby is far more aggressive and rapidly progressive than what's seen in most asbestos-exposed workers, with high rates of cancers and severe effects on respiratory function," said Dr. Levin. "For that reason alone, the health problems in Libby are important to study and understand."

The first of the three programs will focus on particular risks of exposure to Libby during childhood, when lungs are still developing and maturing. This research may determine the level of environmental cleanup necessary in Libby to protect children, who are a particularly sensitive target population.

A second study will compare lung scarring among Libby residents who were exposed to asbestos only in their environment (and not at their place of employment) with lung scarring seen in workers with historically long-term, heavy exposure to common commercial forms of asbestos. Researchers hope to discover why Libby residents have advanced rates of lung scarring. They will also investigate the mechanism for asbestos-related scar formation and approaches to preventing scar formation after exposure has already occurred.

The third investigation will examine the relationships between , autoimmune antibody abnormalities, and CT-scan evidence of scarring in the context of exposure to Libby asbestos. Auto-immune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus have been found to occur more frequently in Libby, and antibody levels to the body's own tissues are found in Libby residents more frequently and at higher concentrations.

Mount Sinai researchers will collaborate on the research effort, to be known as the Libby Epidemiology Research Program, with Libby's Center for Asbestos Related Disease (CARD), investigators from the University of Montana and Idaho State University, and a national scientific advisory group. The research will be supported by a grant of over $4.8 million from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) of the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The crisis in Libby, a mining town whose history has been shaped by vermiculite-producing corporations since the 1920s, is the result of community-wide occupational and environmental exposure to Libby's naturally occurring vermiculite, contaminated with asbestos and asbestos-like silicate fibers up to 26% by weight.

Health effects have been detected not just in mine and processing plant workers, area lumber mill workers and loggers (from asbestos dusting of forests) and their families, but also among other Libby residents and their children. Many were exposed through ambient air or to mine tailings and other contaminated materials provided to the town by mining companies for the construction of ball fields, school running tracks, playgrounds, public buildings and facilities, as well as for private gardens and house and business insulation.

There is evidence that even relatively low-level exposures to Libby asbestos can cause serious scarring lung diseases, which markedly impair respiratory function, as well as asbestos-related cancers like lung cancer and mesothelioma, which occur at higher rates among the Libby population than elsewhere in the United States.

The health crisis potentially extends far beyond the borders of Libby, since millions of homes and businesses in North America have used vermiculite from Libby as attic insulation, fireproofing and soil conditioner. The ore from Libby was shipped by rail to 49 plant locations throughout North America and the Caribbean for processing, exposing many more workers and communities to the hazardous dust.

CARD Director Brad Black, MD, said, "The pattern of asbestos disease caused by exposure to Libby amphibole asbestos has led to excessive morbidity and mortality for the Libby population, and has been exceedingly challenging for the medical community. The severity of nonmalignant pulmonary disease in non-occupational exposure has been very unusual, raising question as to the potency of the unique amphibole mixture. We look forward to working with Dr. Levin and Mount Sinai to find some of these answers."

Source: Mount Sinai School of Medicine

Explore further: Oil-swishing craze: Snake oil or all-purpose remedy?

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Court ruling hurts asbestos workers

Oct 19, 2007

Welsh factory workers who suffer scarring of the lung tissue from asbestos may have lost their right to file for compensation.

1 in 8 with lung cancer show asbestos exposure, study finds

Jun 01, 2009

Pleural plaques, or a thickening of lung membranes due to asbestos exposure, were found in one in eight lung cancer patients, according to medical research papers jointly released Monday by 12 medical institutions in Japan.

Asbestos disease projections too low

Apr 02, 2007

Current predictions of the future incidence of asbestos-related disease have been substantially underestimated, according to new modelling to be presented in Melbourne today by an epidemiologist from The Australian National ...

Recommended for you

Suddenly health insurance is not for sale

Apr 18, 2014

(HealthDay)— Darlene Tucker, an independent insurance broker in Scotts Hill, Tenn., says health insurers in her area aren't selling policies year-round anymore.

Study: Half of jailed NYC youths have brain injury (Update)

Apr 18, 2014

About half of all 16- to 18-year-olds coming into New York City's jails say they had a traumatic brain injury before being incarcerated, most caused by assaults, according to a new study that's the latest in a growing body ...

Autonomy and relationships among 'good life' goals

Apr 18, 2014

Young adults with Down syndrome have a strong desire to be self-sufficient by living independently and having a job, according to a study into the meaning of wellbeing among young people affected by the disorder.

User comments : 0

More news stories

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Study says we're over the hill at 24

(Medical Xpress)—It's a hard pill to swallow, but if you're over 24 years of age you've already reached your peak in terms of your cognitive motor performance, according to a new Simon Fraser University study.

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.