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Mount Sinai Researchers to Head Asbestos Research Program in Libby, Montana 

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.