As part of an ongoing effort to better understand the complex types of
lung disease caused by exposure to amphibole asbestos fibers from vermiculite
mining in Libby, Montana, three new doctors have joined the Libby Epidemiology
Research Program(LERP), as part of the Center for Asbestos Related Disease
(CARD). CARD is a not-for-profit clinic devoted to providing long-term
screening, health monitoring, disease
diagnosis, research and outreach to persons exposed to amphibole asbestos in Libby,
Montana as a result of vermiculite mining in the region since 1919.
Dr. Raja Flores, chief of thoracic
surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, has taken on the role
of primary investigator of the LERP. He is joined by Dr. Claudia Henschke,
clinical professor of radiology and head of the Lung and Cardiac Screening
Program at Mount Sinai and Dr. David Yenkelevitz, professor of radiology
and director of the Lung
Biopsy Service at Mount Sinai.
“Bringing such high-level health care professionals onto Libby’s
team is a winning combination for research and health care in the town
where so many have already died from lung diseases,” said Brad Black,
the Libby clinic’s CEO and medical director.
The program will monitor individuals exposed as children over many years
to better understand disease progression, and determine differential factors
for those who develop an asbestos related disease to those who do not.
Researchers will compare
CT scans of lung scarring between those with environmental exposure, occupational
exposure and those who were exposed in Libby, but have since moved away.
The progression of lung scarring appears to occur more rapidly among Libby
citizens exposed to amphibole tremolite fibers than those exposed exclusively
to chrysotile fibers, the more commonly encountered form of asbestos.
If researchers can determine the mechanisms behind the acceleration, whether
it be due to the type of fiber or the level of exposure, it can hopefully
offer insight into new approaches to prevent scarring from developing.
“People in Libby have more autoimmune antibodies than those with
no exposure, as well as those exposed to different kinds,” explains
Black, “Researchers will also examine autoimmune antibodies and
autoimmune disorders, which could hold the key to why some people react
differently to the amphibole fibers.”
The health dangers of the amphibole asbestos mined in Libby extend far
beyond the town. Millions of homes and businesses in North America have
used vermiculite from Libby as insulation, fireproofing and as soil conditioner.
It is estimated that the Libby mine was the source of 80 percent of all
vermiculite used in the world.
Executives from W.R. Grace, which owned the mine when it closed in 1990,
were tried on criminal charges in the U.S. District Court in Missoula
in 2009 for knowingly exposing citizens to the dangerous fiber, but were
acquitted by a jury after a trial that lasted several months. As a result
of the trial however, W.R. Grace was ordered to pay the U.S. government
more than $54 million to cover cleanup costs of the town and mine.