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UM Study Suggests Link In Asbestos Exposure

Jan 31, 2005 | AP

Researchers at the University of Montana believe they have documented a possible link between asbestos exposure and the "red flags" for autoimmune diseases that the human body sends out.

Researchers say that while a lot of additional study is needed, the findings could be the first step in understanding how certain environmental exposure may trigger autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and schleroderma.

The study looked at blood samples from 50 residents of Libby and compared them to samples from a control group, matched by age and sex, of 50 people living in Missoula.

Libby was contaminated with asbestos fibers from a vermiculite mine that was operated by W.R. Grace & Co. from 1963 to 1990. Asbestos contamination has been blamed for some 200 deaths and health problems of hundreds of other area residents.

Jean Pfau, a researcher at UM's Center for Environmental Health Sciences, said the study found that the Libby residents were much more likely to have certain proteins in their blood known as antinuclear antibodies, or ANAs that the body mistakenly sends out and which attack tissues, organs and cells.

Those antinuclear antibodies occurred 28.6 percent more frequently in the Libby group than in the Missoula group, Pfau said.

The findings are printed in the January 2005 issue of a National Institutes of Health publication, Environmental Health Perspectives.

UM's study is small, but researchers intend to embark on a much larger study to determine whether higher ANA levels translate into actual autoimmune diseases.

UM is applying for grants from the National Institutes of Health to follow up with those residents. Results could take four or five years to publish, Pfau said.

The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association called the UM study promising. Heredity aspects of autoimmune diseases are well-known, but environmental triggers are less understood, according to the association.

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