Dangerous Cycle in Asbestos Town

As reported by Associated Press, those who have lived in the town of Libby, MT for the last few decades have seen around 400 people die and an additional 1,750 suffer from asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma cancer and asbestosis.  Emotions and anxiety ran high recently when it was discovered the struggle is not yet over.  This week, it was revealed that two giant piles of bark and wood chips that have sat on the edge of town for years are contaminated with an unknown level of asbestos.  Residents have been helping themselves to truckload after truckload of the material to place in yards, city parks, outside school and at the local cemetery.  No one ever told them the piles may be filled with the toxin that has killed so many of the people they loved.

An AP investigation found that the federal government has known for at least three years that the wood piles contained asbestos, but they did not know the level of contamination.  EPA documents show that in 2007, 20 samples were taken from the pile, four of which showed potentially dangerous asbestos fibers.  The piles came from a now-defunct timber mill that took thousands of trees from a forest affected by asbestos from a nearby mine.

The potential for more contamination has frayed nerves in the town of 3,000 people and further eroded confidence in the government to clean up the mess. Resident Lerah Parker, who has spread truckloads of the material around her property, worries, “We thought we were coming to an end and now we have this issue all over again.” Residents are justified to feel concerned about the public health of their town.  Asbestos is one of the only causes of mesothelioma and, unfortunately, the mesothelioma life expectancy can be grim.

Residents aren’t the only ones scrambling at this time. The EPA is now trying to gauge the public health risk and is preparing to issue guidelines about how residents should handle the wood, including warnings not to move or work with the material when it’s dry to avoid stirring up asbestos.  But the agency has decided it won’t track down where the chips went, saying it no longer has jurisdiction because the material is now classified as a commercial product.

Libby has fought an uphill battle against asbestos for many years.  This is not a resting point.  They must continue leading the fight for an asbestos-free country.