HHS, EPA to Study Asbestos Effects on Health in Libby

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health have launched a five-year, $8 million study, the Libby Amphibole Health Risk Initiative, to research the effects of low levels of asbestos exposure on human health. The initiative will attempt to discern what connection, if any, there is between asbestos exposure at low levels and diseases like cancer, autoimmune syndromes, chronic illnesses, and other health problems. Studies and research will focus on the town of Libby, Montana, where an asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine exposed thousands of workers to deadly levels of asbestos, and thousands more to background levels of exposure. More than 200 people have died from asbestos-related conditions in Libby.

The initiative will consist of a number of studies and research projects. One study will examine the health profiles of people who spent their childhood in Libby but then moved away, to health profiles of people who were never in Libby. There will also be an expansion of the existing evaluations of Libby residents and improvements to the public health tracking system and health record databases, to improve the ability of researchers to link asbestos exposure to health problems. Very low levels of asbestos are naturally present in the air and water and are not thought to pose a threat, but there is little research on whether somewhat elevated levels of background asbestos, commonly found in places like Libby where asbestos-containing substances have been mined or processed, may cause health problems. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt stated that, while the health risks of high levels of asbestos exposure are well-established, little is known about the health impacts of low levels of the deadly substance, saying “We hope this effort will expand our knowledge of potential and real health issues that could be facing this group of individuals.” The EPA and HHS have made additional information on the Libby Amphibole Health Risk Initiative at their websites, at http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov and http://www.epa.gov.