Are Libby, Montana Schools Safe from Asbestos? The Debate Rages

At a recent Community Advisory Group Meeting in Libby, Montana, the safety of the schools there was debated. The entire town has been contaminated by asbestos , and many residents have undergone testing and treatment for asbestos-caused diseases as a result of the presence of the W.R. Grace mine where asbestos-containing materials were mined. Now the health and safety of the students attending Libby schools is in question. Testing had been conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2000-2001. The unit chief of staff for the Libby area EPA, Kathie Atencio, reported, “Right now, given the data, it is not really showing we need to take removal action.” The safety of children attending classes in the schools was not definitively stated by Atencio. “There really aren’t the studies available to show what is or what is not safe.

Many answers to these questions may take several years,” she said. Asbestos is a known carcinogen. It has been linked to the development of several lung ailments, and currently inhalation of asbestos fibers or particles is the only known cause of the deadly cancer mesothelioma . According to the U.S. Asbestos School Hazard Detection and Control Act passed in 1980, there is no safe minimum level for asbestos exposure in schools. Members of the Community Action Group (CAG) wanted a minimum level of asbestos to be set so that the test results from the Libby schools could be applied to determine if and when the EPA should begin asbestos removal and disposal. Many community members expressed concern over the fact that as this debate over the safety of the schools continues, the students are still attending classes in a potentially toxic environment.

The next sets of testing — activity sampling and air quality — to be done on the schools will use Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) to measure amounts of asbestos fibers in the air. The best results from these tests occur during the summer months, nine months away from the October CAG meeting, but the activity-based sampling is the most reliable of all the tests available. Even though the screenings show that there were trace amounts of asbestos in and around the schools, the EPA has been constrained by the unofficial “Grace Rule.” Due to the lobbying of the large W.R. Grace company in the 1970s, the EPA will not act until asbestos is in concentrations of higher than one percent. Until further results warrant the EPA to act, more testing will be done in and around the Libby schools. Currently, the students are still attending classes in the schools while the testing is done around them.