Crosses that represent people killed by vermiculite exposure from the Zonolite mine. via


SPOKANE, Wash. -- Researchers have embarked on an ambitious study to track the health of thousands of high school graduates over a half century in a Montana town where a toxic mine has killed hundreds of people and made it the deadliest Superfund site in the nation.

People who attended Libby High between 1950 and 1999 and then moved away are being asked to submit to tests to help determine the extent of contamination caused by asbestos mining and processing in the northwestern Montana town. Researchers will track down many of the 13,000-plus graduates with the help of the school district and alumni groups, and then ask them to undergo a battery of X-rays, CT scans and pulmonary function tests.

Dr. Stephen M. Levin of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York said the study is part of a larger range of work trying to figure out why asbestos-related disease coming out of Libby appears to be particularly fast-moving and virulent.

"This progresses much more rapidly than your grandfather's asbestos-related disease," Levin said.

The mineral vermiculite was mined in Libby for much of the past century. At the mine's peak in the l970s, operator W.R. Grace produced almost 2 million tons of ore annually and employed about 200 miners and others. Vermiculite was shipped around the world to make insulation.

But unmarketable material - much of it asbestos - made up about 80 percent of the ore. The crushing of the rock in the course of the vermiculite mining set billions of asbestos fibers loose in clouds of dust that drifted six miles down to Libby. Many residents of the town of 3,000 who never set foot in the mine were exposed, and kids once frolicked in polluted piles of fluffy white waste dumped behind the community baseball field.

A recent Associated Press examination of the toxic legacy of Libby found that the pollution has killed more than 400 people while revealing that the federal government has been overwhelmed in its response to the catastrophe. …

Scientists seek former students in toxic MT town

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