A Nation Infected by the Mine of One Small Montana Town in Libby, Montana

For years now we have heard of the health dangers asbestos caused thriving in the construction materials of older homes, lawn care products, automobile brakes and more.

Though dating back to ancient Roman times, asbestos mining did not become large-scale until the end of the 19th century. Manufacturers and builders were drawn to its desirable physical properties of sound absorption; average tensile strength; resistance to fire, heat and electricity; and affordability.

Used in electrical and building insulation, asbestos quickly gained widespread use in construction and other industries. Asbestos use grew throughout the 20th century until public knowledge of the health dangers asbestos eventually caused and was banned in mainstream construction in most countries.

Asbestos is a set of six natural silicate minerals with long, thin fibrous crystals.

Each visible fiber is composed of millions of tiny “fibrils” released into the air by abrasion and other destructive processes. They are commonly known by their colors, as blue asbestos, brown asbestos, white asbestos, and green asbestos. Prolonged inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis.

Due to the material’s use in everyday life, slow emergence of symptoms still arise decades after asbestos use was banned. So, asbestos litigation is the longest, costliest mass tort in U.S. history. Asbestos-related liability remains a concern for many manufacturers and insurers.

Even with asbestos in your home, it is usually NOT a serious problem. Asbestos simply present in a home or a building is not hazardous. Danger arises when asbestos materials become damaged over time. Damaged asbestos may release asbestos dust into the air, becoming a health hazard. So, the best thing to do if asbestos remains in good condition is to leave it alone.

Disturbing it may release the fibrils into the air, creating a new health hazard. Read up before having any changes to asbestos material in the home.

Where Health Dangers Asbestos May Be Found in The Home:

  • Roofing and siding may be made of asbestos cement.
  • Houses built between 1930 and 1950 may have asbestos as insulation.
  • Asbestos may exist in textured paint and joint compounds. These were banned in 1977.
  • Artificial ashes and embers used in gas-fired fireplaces may contain asbestos.
  • Older home products such as stove-top pads may have asbestos compounds.
  • The area around wood burning stoves may be protected with asbestos materials.
  • Asbestos can be found in vinyl tile, vinyl sheet flooring and some adhesives.
  • Pipes in older homes may be coated with asbestos or covered with asbestos tape.
  • Oil and coal furnaces and door gaskets may have asbestos insulation.

For decades the cloud of asbestos overlaying the population of Libby, Montana, was hidden among all corners of the government, medical community, mining industry, corporate America and more. Although concern began as early as the 1920s and 30s, there were always efforts to cover up the dangers of asbestos for the mining workers and customers alike. Although the 1980s and 90s brought about restriction and banning of the asbestos industry in several locations, there were still plenty of companies able to cover up the danger of their work upon the international public.

For so many years the population of Libby have loved their beautiful town. In appreciation of the mine that employed so many Libby citizens, the realization of the threat of inhaling airborne asbestos particles has broken the hearts and spirits of so many. With the release of fatal tremolite when mining and producing the vermiculite, miners carried this dust home on their clothes. Among a small town of only a few thousand, hundreds who never set foot in the mine have been diagnosed with deadly asbestosis.

Given the extensive presence of asbestos dust from the vermiculite mines in Libby, the cloud spread far beyond the workers to their homes and families. As early as 1959 the owner of the mine started a program to have the workers tested for the source of bleeding and other lung problems, though the issues discovered in their chest X-rays were withheld from public knowledge for decades. The largest problem since then has been the excessive efforts to bury the records of fatal effects of asbestos exposure.

Co-author of “An Air That Kills,” David McCumber, presented the deep research completed on asbestos in the W.R. Grace mine of Libby, Montana, at University of Seattle in 2004. While doing a number of stories on the mining industry in the United States, McCumber and his co-author were directed to Libby upon hearing of the problems evolving in the town’s vermiculite mine.

While the vermiculite ore dug out of the mine was laid openly throughout the town, used to build the high school track, and even given freely to town citizens for home construction and other needs, the health dangers of the included asbestos were hidden from public awareness. Not only were the miners bringing home asbestos dust on a daily basis, but children were openly jumping into piles of ore in parks and on sidewalks only to inhale the asbestos dust in horrendous amounts.

One extremely disturbing factor related to the mining of asbestos and its widespread use across the country is the fact that even our own EPA buried the first realization of its fatal health hazards in their drawers for decades.

With the amount of influence held by W.R. Grace and other asbestos corporations’ efforts were made for decades to cover up the danger of this ever-popular construction material. Even the doctors who first learned of the lung problems of Libby miners blamed smoking for illnesses acquired by men who had never smoked a cigarette in their lives.

For decades the positive effects overrode the knowledge of health dangers asbestos was creating, leading to mass uses of vermiculite by construction companies, lawn care companies and others well into the 21st century. As early as 1975 the Scott’s Turf Company in Ohio was using as much as a quarter of the Libby mine production, spreading asbestos dust and related illnesses across an entire other company.

Hundreds of Scot’s employees began with bleeding lungs and other breathing problems. Even though the EPA discovered the source of this widespread health issue, their findings were quickly buried at the bottom of a filing cabinet until decades later when some of their own employees unlocked the initial report.

In the 1980s a Libby doctor began making efforts to expose the health dangers asbestos was creating, especially upon the local mine workers. While he was the only one attempting to uncover the truth, the mine owner and other doctors worked to force him out of town. This can be attributed to the Grace Commission, working to keep the government off the backs of the entire asbestos industry for several decades.

With all of this time and effort spent on hiding the deadly effects of asbestos, by 2004 nearly one-third of the Libby population had lung abnormalities leading to asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma as a result of asbestos inhalation. Since this information was uncovered to the public millions have been spent toward cleaning up this small town, although only leading to remediation among those already affected.

Government funds are quickly running out, leaving thousands of asbestos victims without the ability to gain insurance due to their medical condition and causing a reliance on legal claims to draw from W.R. Grace and other company’s funds to relieve the health dangers asbestos infected employees and customers.

Mesowatch connects patients diagnosed with mesothelioma or lung cancer financial and legal justice, Contact our legal team anytime and you will be able to discuss your case immediately with leading asbestos lawyers.

Matthew Davis

Author

Matthew Davis has studied journalism at the University of Colorado and has covered civil litigation for a variety of publications. He joined Mesowatch in 2016 and covers asbestos litigation developments in the U.S., as well as newsworthy asbestos cases.