Could the United States government be putting the public health at risk due to costs? That is a question Senator Baucus and others are asking. News was revealed in a September 2008 hearing in Environment and Public Works committee in the Senate that the government chose to not declare Libby, Montana, an emergency site from asbestos contamination due to the potential costs that could accrue if other sites sought the same distinction around the country. Baucus investigated the EPA and other government agencies over the course of two years and released the 50-page report before the hearing of the Senate committee. Results showed that the EPA wanted to name Libby, Montana, as a public health emergency site, but decided not to do so following a White House meeting. The problem in Libby, Montana, was the contamination of the town from the mine owned by W.R. Grace, which manufactured an asbestos-containing material called Zonolite. Zonolite was used extensively in building materials in Libby and all across the United States. Asbestos from the mine and the Zonolite in homes led to over 200 deaths in Libby and thousands more sickened.
Exposure to asbestos leads to many lung diseases, and it is the only known cause of the deadly cancer mesothelioma . There is no effective treatment for mesothelioma at present, and the illness usually kills within two years of diagnosis, but diagnosis with asbestos-related ailments seldom occurs until ten to twenty years after exposure. As a result, the death toll in Libby can only increase as time progresses. By declaring Libby a public health emergency, the federal government would have to pay for treatment and screenings of the townspeople as well as for cleanup of the area. Baucus speculates that denial of that declaration was due to prohibitive costs resulting from other sites seeking the same distinction. The EPA has still undertaken some of the cleanup, but in order to do so without the public health emergency declaration, they had to label the toxic Zonolite insulation in homes as a “non-product,” since many obtained the insulation from W.R. Grace’s discards. The level of danger of the town has yet to be discerned since testing was delayed from the lack of emergency status for the town. Public health is still in a crisis situation, whether or not there is an official emergency declaration. The local asbestos clinic sees over two thousand of patients annually with asbestos-caused diseases, and more are added weekly. Baucus hopes that the results of his investigation will lead to legislation in 2009 to have Libby, Montana declared a public health emergency site and bring the town the financial support it needs.