In a case that truly involves adding insult to injury, a study has shown that the people of Libby, Montana, victims of the worst asbestos-related environmental catastrophe in the world, may not only be more apt to develop mesothelioma but may also be prone to developing autoimmune diseases, including arthritis, lupus, and scleroderma.
Thanks to W.R. Grace and Company’s asbestos-tainted vermiculite mine, the town of Libby and the surrounding areas have among the highest rates of mesothelioma cancer per capita in the country.
That’s not only because several thousand area residents worked in and around the mine, but also because the company distributed asbestos tailings to the community, where they would be used in gardens, playgrounds, and other spots. At that time, no one told residents about the dangers of asbestos exposure, so many locals of all ages were exposed.
It wasn’t until the late 20th century, however, that the EPA caught on and recognized the tragedy occurring in the small town near the Canadian border…and the saga continues. Thus far, about 400 area residents have died of asbestos-related diseases. But now, the link to autoimmune diseases raises even more questions.
The connection between the people of Libby and the high rate of disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis first came to light in the early part of the millennium, when 7,300 Lincoln County, Montana residents took a health survey distributed by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
At that time, a substantial number of participants indicated they were suffering from an autoimmune disease. However, it wasn’t until 2008 that a professor at Montana State University started to look at the statistics more closely.
Dr. Jean Pfau noticed that of the 7,300 people surveyed, 113 reported being diagnosed with arthritis, which is about twice the national average. In addition, lupus and scleroderma were reported at higher rates as well.
The disease that especially attracted attention was scleroderma, which is quite rare. Only about 200,000 cases are reported each year in the U.S. However, 50 Libby-area residents had the disease.
Pfau later connected with Libby’s Center for Asbestos-related Disease (CARD) and both received a million-dollar grant to study the phenomenon. During the study, they exposed mice to Libby-mined asbestos and nearly all the animals developed autoimmune diseases.
Now that the grant is about to run out and Pfau is compiling her final statistics, she and CARD director Dr. Brad Black hope the research can continue via more grants. Black and Pfau believe it would be possible to find a treatment for these asbestos-related autoimmune conditions if given more time and money for research, they told the Flathead Beacon, a newspaper from nearby Kalispell, Montana.
Though the Libby mine closed in 1990, the EPA didn’t step in until 2002, declaring the area a Superfund Site. Clean-up commenced soon after that and still continues.
Numerous documentaries have detailed the plight of Libby residents and the suffering that has come to that town due to sloppy environmental practices and company higher-ups who refused to report their findings about the dangers of asbestos exposure.
Sadly, three W. R. Grace and Co. executives were acquitted of any wrongdoing in 2009, ending the largest environmental crimes prosecution in the United States. However, individuals continue to seek compensation from the company’s asbestos trust, which was established in 2014.