Lung Issues in Those Subjected Adolescent Asbestos Exposure

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A recent study conducted by a group of research scientists in the Northwest concluded that almost half of the nearly 200 subjects in their study, who were subjected to adolescent asbestos exposure in Libby, Montana as pre-1990 adolescents, had pleural thickening in their lungs later in life.

It’s a conclusion that doesn’t surprise many who have already found themselves ill and have lost family members to one of the world’s worst environmental disasters.

adolescent asbestos exposure study in Libby, MontanaIn an article in The Western News, reporter Bethany Rolfson points out that the normal rate of pleural thickening among those who are not exposed to asbestos is about .2 to 6.5 percent.

Among the study subjects, the rate was a whopping 48 percent. That means those who grew up in Libby around the tainted vermiculite mines of W.R. Grace and Company have as much as a 250 percent higher chance of developing this lung issue, which can make breathing quite difficult.

“When you think of asbestos, you think of asbestosis and mesothelioma, and while it’s more common in Libby, they’re still very rare diseases,” said Montana State University professor and one of the many project researchers, Dr. Jean Pfau. “[Pleural thickening] on the other hand, is much more common.”

This particular study delved into the results of exposure to amphibole asbestos, which is the type to which individuals who lived and worked in Libby were exposed.

It included research scientists from nearby Montana State University and also Idaho State University and the Center for Asbestos-related Diseases Clinic in the Libby area. It was entitled “The Pre-adult Latency Study” and included 198 subjects who are now around age 50.

These individuals had attended primary or secondary school in Libby prior to a certain age and were subject to low-level, non-occupational exposure. (None of them worked for W.R. Grace) Many left the area after a certain age though some returned. Specifically,

  • 92 had participated in recreational activities along Rainy Creek Road
  • 180 played in or watched games at the largely-contaminated downtown ballfield,
  • 134 played in piles of vermiculite
  • 134 used the asbestos-lined middle school track outside of scheduled gym classes
  • 107 heated up vermiculite ore in science classes
  • 121 gardened in soil that contained vermiculite
  • 171 burned asbestos-dust-covered firewood in their homes

Of the 96 who were determined to have thickening of the pleura – the lining of the lungs – more than half presented with the lamellar (layered) type of the disease, which is generally not seen in those with past exposure to other types of asbestos, such as chrysotile.

This type of thickening seemed to lead to a quicker and more severe loss in pulmonary function, the researchers determined.

While there have been previous studies done with those who grew up during the worst of the Libby asbestos disaster, none of the other studies included chest CT scans, which have been able to track the progression of the lung problems.

Subjects have also undergone pulmonary function tests, which show how deeply they can inhale and how hard they can exhale.

Many of the subjects diagnosed with thickening note that they have problems walking up stairs, exercising, and doing other things that involve exerting themselves though everyday activities seem not to be a problem in general.

Pfau hopes that the study will encourage Libby-area doctors to do more than just an x-ray when they are examining patients who are complaining of breathing problems. She notes that a CT scan really is necessary for a complete and accurate diagnosis.