In Libby, Montana, home of the former W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine, they mined something else. They mined asbestos, and inadvertently created asbestos-contaminated dust that covered the town.
The mine has been closed since 1990, but for thousands of residents, the injury caused by the deadly fibers had already begun. Lodged deep in their lungs, the microscopic, needle-like fibers are inexorably causing the damage that will eventually result in asbestos-related illnesses like asbestosis and mesothelioma.
And now, more than twenty years after the mine was closed, the tally of those sickened by asbestos continues to mount. There been 400 deaths attributed to the asbestos contamination in Libby and 2,000 suffer diseases traced to the mine.
The Libby amphibole asbestos appears to be a more dangerous type of asbestos and causes more health problems. Apparently, even minimal exposure carries with it an increased risk of lung disease.
The doctor who came to the town 36 years ago struggles to help those who now suffer with the illnesses. He comments that, "You feel bad you couldn't have recognized it early on so you could have protected more people."
He understands better than most doctors that regret; he too, has developed symptoms of asbestos-related lung disease.
And of course, the deadly reach of the Libby asbestos extends far from Montana, as the vermiculate was processed at sites around the U.S. and is embedded in thousands of homes, schools and other buildings.
The installers and construction workers were exposed and the threat remains, in attics and walls around the country, silently deadly, waiting for the next victim.
Source: The Wall Street Journal, "A Doctor on the Front Lines of Asbestos Fight," Dionne Searcy, November 26, 2013