The deadly legacy of Libby, Montana, is a tragedy that highlights the dangers of asbestos exposure. A W.R. Grace vermiculite mine contaminated with asbestos operated here for decades, exposing workers and residents. Thousands became sick, and many died.
Small Town, Big Problem
For nearly three decades, a vermiculite mine run by W.R. Grace & Company served as the primary source of income for many people in Libby, Montana. It operated near the small town between 1963 and 1990.
They didn’t know that the vermiculite deposits they mined ran alongside naturally-occurring asbestos deposits, which led to contamination on a grand scale.
Vermiculite Mining Dangers
Asbestos testing was not commonplace during the years that the mine was functional, so unbeknownst to the miners and residents of Libby, the vermiculite they worked with daily was tainted with asbestos fibers.
Many of the people working in the mine and nearby processing plant exposed themselves to asbestos without knowing about it or the risks. In the decades to come, they would ultimately pay the price for the work they did in the form of mesothelioma diagnoses or other asbestos-related diseases.
Not Only Miners Suffered
The asbestos that silently contaminated Libby’s vermiculite production became airborne. The wind carried fibers aloft to nearby homes and businesses. The fibers also attached to workers who then returned home with the fibers attached to their work clothes.
The workers bore the brunt of the dangers associated with the asbestos they inhaled or ingested, but their families and neighbors also suffered from asbestos contamination.
Mesothelioma Prevalence in Libby
Studies have attributed hundreds of deaths in Libby to the asbestos within the vermiculite mine since the mine’s operation and closure. With a town so small, this is a large chunk of its population—and more diagnoses are being made all the time, even after the mine’s closure and remediation efforts in recent years.
The Environmental Protection Agency ruled that the air in Libby is safe for breathing. However, some homes involved in the remediation efforts may still pose an asbestos exposure risk despite being previously treated.
Residents, both current and prospective, wonder if enough can ever be done to make their town a safe place to live, a place without fear of developing malignant mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases.
The High Price of Low Standards
Vermiculite manufacturing is now more strictly regulated, with the product having to be screened for asbestos before being released for industrial or private usage and purchase. However, during the time that the W.R. Grace mine was operating, such measures were not taken.
During the twenty-seven years of operation tons of tainted vermiculite was mined, manufactured, shipped, and sold. Vermiculite itself was once considered carcinogenic until it was discovered that vermiculite deposits and asbestos deposits tend to sit atop one another in the earth’s crust.
Now scientists believe it is not the vermiculite that posed a danger after all, but the asbestos that was alongside it and, thus, silently contaminating it.
Hundreds of unnecessary deaths could have been prevented if the company screened the vermiculite for contaminating substances, such as asbestos.
The Dangers Persist Even Now
Even today, living in Libby, Montana or any other place with a similarly dark legacy of asbestos contamination has its risks. With the asbestos lying just beneath the soil, erosion by elements such as wind or rain could bring the hazard—now supposed remediated—right back up to the surface and right back into the water and air in the region.
Because mesothelioma has a long latency period, former workers and residents still receive diagnoses today. Although the mine closed in 1990 and cleanup is done, people will still get stick here.
Asbestos leaves its mark on the humans who handle it in the form of malignant mesothelioma, which has an extremely long latency period, meaning it may not be diagnosed until several decades after a person was exposed to it. That means people who were babies during the time the mine was open for business may now be receiving a mesothelioma diagnosis—during a time that is supposed to be the prime of their lives.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.