Libby, MT, Asbestos Central

I saw a good documentary on Libby MT (the town that got pummled with asbestos from the surrounding vermeculite mines) last night on PBS's P.O.V. program. You should check it out, there are rebroadcasts in most areas for taping it. Check it out here: P.O.V.

What happend in Libby is really a good learning tale for two reasons:
1) It shows how evil corporations can be and how the employees can be blinded to that fact
2) It shows how toothless the EPA is when a company really wants to butt heads.
3) It shows how easy it is to forget the impact on people's lives when you aren't seeing them or listening to them but only reading about their issues on paper.

Here's one fact I always bring up to show how ineffectual the EPA can be. Asbestos isn't banned. They tried but it got turned over in court because it didn't meet the legal bar set by the legislation. You and I both know that asbestos is dangerous. If you can't ban asbestos, a particle that causes a specific traceable disease, you can't ban anything (the handful of things that actually are banned, happened more than 20 years ago and were mostly mandated by congress). Unfortunately, I don't see congress strengthening EPA's hand anytime soon.

More like this

Senator Murray keeps introducing legislation to ban asbestos, and this year it finally passed the EPW committee (with unanimous support).

If she wants to rally public support for the bill, she'll first have to get people to realize that asbestos isn't already banned - a lot of people seem to think it is.

I can foresee some potential problems with a ban on "asbestos".

Obligatory flame retardant: This is in no way an attempt to condone or excuse the criminal behavior of corporations that have tried to bury studies showing harm or weak attempts by public health officials to enforce the meager laws on the books.

First, it occurs naturally. It's not like synthetic chemicals like DDT or fluorocarbons, wherein if you ban them, the production ceases, and they (eventually) go away. Preventing the use or mining will clearly decrease health risks, but these mineral fibers will occur for as long as there are metamorphic rocks on Earth.

Second, there is not a single thing called "asbestos". The proper terminology is asbestiform habit, as a number of minerals can occur with a long, fibrous form. "Asbestos" is an industrial term, not a scientific term, and there are different risks associated with asbestiform chrysotile and asbestiform amphiboles.

This is definitely a situation where unintended consequences could arise. A poorly written "asbestos" ban could easily lead to an erroneous syllogism-

Asbestos is dangerous.
Amphiboles can be asbestos.
Therefore, amphiboles are dangerous.

-causing fist-sized crystals of tremolite to be labeled as deadly, and mountains of hornblende schist (like the one outside here) to be fenced off for fear of cancer.

Again, this isn't a call to exonerate W.R. Grace; just a caution to not solve one problem by making three more.

(note no connection between my web name and the actual Libby MT)

I caught a good portion of this show last night by chance. I think what is so infuriating, as you have pointed out, is how easy it is to detach ourselves from the lives certain decisions by the government affect. No, the problems of asbestos or any other toxic substance is not cut and dry, but in the midst of our debates, both scientific and political, people continue to die and families are torn apart with issues of how to deal with medical bills and grief and just plain how to go on living. These are real people with real lives, not just statistics on a piece of paper.

I think if I were a resident of MT, the way the governor spoke to this group would absolutely send me to spontaneous combustion levels of frustration. I said to my better half, sounds just like a politician, doesn't it?

By Sci_Libby (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

I agree with NJ. My experience is that terminology needs to be clarified before any legislation should be made. As a geologist I use very different terms and descriptors for asbestos than regulations currently in place. It is also very difficult to correctly identify the type(s) of asbestos present in a sample. The current methods used to identify asbestos (as required by regulations) are not adequate and need to be updated.
Legislation will need to be carefully worded to say that harmful asbestiform minerals may not be used in PRODUCTS. It is a naturally occuring substance and cannot be banned from being made or occuring. For an idea of how difficult this problem is see Asbestiform Fibers: Nonoccupational Health Risks. Chapter 2 describes the difficulty of defining asbestos and later chapters discuss health effects.
This is a difficult and sensitive issue that needs carefully worded updates in its regulation and legislation.

NJ and Mel - You're right, it would be impossible to somehow legislate asbestos out of existence. What Murray's bill actually requires is that the EPA Administrator issue a regulation that will "prohibit persons from manufacturing, processing, or distributing in commerce asbestos-containing products."

The EPA will have to come up with the actual regulation, and the process will doubtless involve much discussion about the different fiber types.

What is the URL for the "Asbestiform Fibers: Nonoccupational Health Risks"? The link in your comment does not seem to be working?

By Celeste Monforton (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

Check out Libby Mike Crill and Eaglesvoices to get a idea what Libby Mt continues to do.Kill people....Stay away from Libby Mt as Libby is not a safe place to live and raise a family.The EPA is selling Libby as safe.This is a deadly lie.

By Mike Crill (not verified) on 31 Mar 2008 #permalink