After years of ignoring the dangers of asbestos, and the resulting nationwide epidemic of asbestos disease, including mesothelioma, there is a renewed interest in studying this deadly material. This week, the Billings Gazette announced the federal government will fund an $8 million study to understand the health effects of low-level exposure to asbestos. The study will be based in Libby, Montana, where more than 200 people have died to date as a result of asbestos mining operations in the town, and hundreds more people suffer from asbestos related diseases.
The Libby program, dubbed the Libby Amphibole Health Risk Initiative, is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The study is expected to span 5 years with a goal of expanding knowledge about the potential and real health issues of asbestos exposure.
Libby already has proved a tragically rich source of knowledge about long-term exposure to high levels of asbestos, as the EPA’s initial examination and cleanup of the town focused on miners with direct exposure to the substance in their jobs, as well as people who handled asbestos mineral and were exposed to asbestos dust secondarily on a daily basis.
But, the Gazette reports, too little is know about exposure to lower levels of asbestos. EPA officials hope that results of the study will benefit not only the residents of Libby, but people throughout the country.
In April, the Minnesota state legislature approved $4.9 million for its own five-year study, to be conducted under the direction of the University of Minnesota, in connection with unusually high levels of mesothelioma affecting Iron Range mine workers. A large question in the area is whether dust from the taconite mined there – a fibrous mineral similar to asbestos – could also cause mesothelioma.
A key part of the Minnesota research will be an examination of previous asbestos exposure among mine workers, which will expand the base of knowledge about the affect of asbestos on health, in addition to the new studies about the effect of taconite.
According to the Billings Gazette, among tests to be included in the Libby study are a comparison of film and digital chest X-rays to determine which is best for assessing the lungs, a comparison of the health of people exposed to Libby asbestos in childhood versus people who weren’t, an expanded evaluation of Libby residents who were exposed to asbestos, an assessment of whether the health problems related to asbestos exposure extend beyond lung disease.
Researchers in Libby also hope to make improvements to public health tracking systems and patient health record databases, to better link exposure information to health conditions, the Gazette reports.
Gayla Benefield, perhaps one of the best-known residents of Libby for her early outcry about the health effects of asbestos on the people in her town, says she is happy to see an emphasis on research.
She was a charter member of the board of directors of the Center for Asbestos Related Disease (CARD), a not-for-profit clinic governed by a volunteer community board and devoted to healthcare, outreach, and research to benefit all people impacted by exposure to Libby amphibole asbestos. She only recently retired from her position with that organization.
“This is something I’ve wanted from the onset – more study and more research,” she says. “I’ve been especially interested in how much or how little of the (asbestos) fiber can cause meso, and I’ve been really concerned about the schools having been contaminated.”
The key, Benefield says, is to detect mesothelioma at its earliest stage, when there is still time for treatment to prolong life. When people around her in Libby began being diagnosed, she says, their mesothelioma was so advanced that many died within days of the diagnosis.
“We all – everyone in Libby – live under the threat of developing mesothelioma,” she says. “They’re never going to get all that (asbestos) fiber out of Libby, or anywhere for that matter, homes with asbestos insulation, so the research is the big thing. Any and all research having to do with mesothelioma is fantastic. A dream come true.”