In an announcement made on Monday, researchers from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine discussed a new three-phase study that will investigate the effects of vermiculite mining in the Libby, Montana area on residents’ health. The asbestos contamination in that region has contributed to a number of asbestos-related diseases, including the rare cancer mesothelioma.
Once home to a thriving vermiculite mine operated by corporate giant W.R. Grace, Libby has long seen high rates of asbestos diseases in its residents. Not only miners and vermiculite workers are vulnerable, but also their family members and even the general public who live in the area. Asbestos exposure can occur secondhand, and Grace also donated vermiculite materials left over from mining and processing operations for use in recreational and domestic capacities. The Mount Sinai study, which is headed by Dr. Stephen Levin, will focus on the effects of asbestos on Libby’s children, with the aim of assisting federal agencies with the development of cleanup plans in Montana.
The second and third phases of the study will look at lung scarring from asbestos particles in those who lived in Libby but did not work at the mine, and how exposure to asbestos may lead to autoimmune disorders. Assisting with the study are researchers from the University of Montana, Idaho State University, and a national scientific advisory group. The study will cost nearly $5 million. Mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused exclusively by exposure to asbestos, whether first- or secondhand, is newly diagnosed in between 2,000 and 3,000 patients in the United States each year. It is usually not diagnosed until it has reached the most advanced stages of the disease, at which point there are few treatment options available to the patient. The majority of mesothelioma patients live fewer than 24 months after diagnosis, and there is no cure currently available for this devastating form of cancer.