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Asbestos Poisoning Probe Widens

Jun 20, 2002 | AP

Federal health officials said Thursday they are trying to determine whether ore mined in Montana and shipped across the country may have spread potentially fatal asbestos.

The western Montana town of Libby, which for decades was the world's largest supplier of vermiculite ore, has been at the center of what lawmakers and federal officials describe as a public health crisis.

Now, officials are concerned that the problem has spread to other towns where the vermiculite was taken to be processed into soil conditioner and home insulation. The Environmental Protection Agency has identified 240 sites in 40 states where the vermiculite was shipped from Libby.

At least 22 of those sites require some kind of EPA-overseen cleanup, Marianne Horinko, assistant administrator of the EPA's Solid Waste and Emergency Response Office, told the Senate Superfund subcommittee on Thursday.

Lung cancer and fatal asbestos poisoning rates in Libby are 40 to 60 times higher than would be expected. The high rates have been blamed on asbestos contamination, caused by breathing in the dust from the vermiculite. W.R. Grace & Co. closed the mine in 1991 after 67 years of operation, and is now in bankruptcy.

"We are very concerned about the other sites that have received asbestos-contaminated vermiculite," said Henry Falk, assistant administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an office within the Health and Human Services Department.

However, Horinko cautioned that the EPA has not detected signs of asbestos poisoning at the other sites at any level near that of Libby, where 200 deaths and 750 illnesses have been linked to the vermiculite.

"We have not found a pattern of asbestos contamination that in any way approaches what we've seen at Libby," Horinko said.

The 22 sites slated for cleanup are in New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Minnesota, Colorado, North Dakota, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., questioned why the sites aren't already designated for Superfund status, as was Libby. During the hearing, Murray displayed a map of the United States sprinkled with orange dots, each marking a town where vermiculite from Libby's was shipped.

"This map should tell every single senator that this isn't a problem that somebody else has. It's a problem they have," Murray said.

Asbestos fibers are a byproduct of processing the vermiculite into soil conditioner and insulation. The fibers wedge into the lining of the lungs, leading to cancer and a condition called asbestosis, an often fatal scarring of the lungs.

The sickness in Libby was pervasive because the dust from the vermiculite covered the town.

W.R. Grace had given the vermiculite away to homeowners for use as insulation, and donated piles of the vermiculite to the local school, where it was used under the track.

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