top of page

The Lethal Town of Libby, Montana

by Alexandra Fuhs


Hi everyone! This is the third article in our Environmental Health series, which covers the effect the environment can have on human health. This article, written by Alexandra Fuhs, goes over the effects that mining has had on a small town in Montana. Read on to learn more about the horrifying effects of pollution on human health, and how disastrous effects can continue even to this day.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

For nearly 100 years, Libby, Montana, prospered as a result of the vermiculite mining industry. That all changed in 1999, when the EPA was finally brought in after years of pleas from citizens and the media to help fix the tragedy that was devastating the small town. Though that was over 20 years ago, the town still suffers from the deadly illness that plagued them for decades.



The Town’s Disaster:

Miners first discovered vermiculite, a substance used in agriculture to aerate soil and as insulation, in Libby in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until 1920 that the Zolonite Company began mining the substance. In 1963, the mines were purchased by W.R. Grace, and the small Montana town produced 80% of the world’s vermiculite. This created an explosion in jobs for Libby, but the vermiculite deep below the surface resided with a highly toxic substance — asbestos.



When naturally occurring asbestos is disturbed, it is released into the air as millions of microscopic needle-like strands. These strands settled over the community and worked their way into people’s lungs, where there is currently no known way to get them out. The community was blissfully unaware that they were not breathing in the clean Montana air, but instead inhaling toxic chemicals. The miners were not the only ones affected by the deadly dust — their wives who shook off their dust-covered coats; their children who clung to their legs as they returned home from work; and the citizens who used playgrounds, backyards, and roads were all affected, as W.R. Grace had donated leftover vermiculite to these and many more locations.





The Clean Up:

Prosecutors sought to prove that W.R. Grace intentionally poisoned Libby. Shockingly, though, in 2009, the company received an acquittal of charges that they knowingly harmed people. After mounting citizen, government, and media concern, the EPA began investigations. A year later, the town was put on the Superfund Program’s National Priorities List, and workers were put in Libby to identify the contamination sources and begin cleanup. The cleanup project was one of the EPA’s biggest ever — over 3,000 individual sites were cleaned, a million cubic yards of dirt and other materials were replaced, and over $600 million of federal money was spent.



Health effects:


“I don’t think we’ll see the last of these until 2030 and maybe longer.”


The cleanup was completed in 2018, but there is still much work to be done. Thousands of Libby residents and W.R. Grace mine workers have filed lawsuits against the state for failing to warn them about the dangerous levels of asbestos. Hundreds of residents are still suffering from respiratory diseases brought on by the chemicals, and while the amount of people being diagnosed is slowing down, it shows no signs of stopping. Asbestos-related cancers have a long latency period of 20-50 years.



During W.R. Grace's trial, pulmonologist Dr. Alan Whitehouse stated, "I don't think we'll see the last of these until 2030 and maybe longer."


Reports published on the respiratory diseases diagnosed since this incident have come to a similar conclusion: Libby's death rate from asbestos and respiratory diseases is 40-60x the national rate. Hundreds in the town have passed away, and more will continue to die.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Thanks for reading the third article in our environmental health series! We hope you learned about the dangers of asbestos, and how they can devastate human health.


If you enjoyed reading this article, please check out the previous article in our Environmental Health series on Nuclear Weapons and Health, by Mahee Mishra.


Until next time,

Alexandra and the Writing Committee


References:

  1. Mesothelioma Hope. “Libby, Montana Asbestos Disaster: 20 Years Later”, 18 December 2019.

  2. The Guardian. “Welcome to Libby, Montana, the town that was poisoned”, 7 March 2009.

  3. NIH. “Mortality from asbestos-associated disease in Libby, Montana 1979-2022.” Samantha Lampert Naik, Michael Lewin, Rand Young, Steve M Dearwent, Robin Lee. 30 March 2016.


Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page