Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Resources for Activists: An Air the Kills
By Jonathan Bennett, NYCOSH Update on Safety and Health, February 9, 2004

An Air That Kills: How the Asbestos Poisoning of Libby, Montana, Uncovered a National Scandal by Andrew Schneider and David McCumber, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2004, $25.95

Libby is a small Montana town where hundreds of workers and residents have died, or are dying, from asbestos-related disease, caused by dust from a mine and mill owned by W.R. Grace.

An Air That Kills begins with an eyewitness account of what happened in Libby, documenting how Grace suppressed the knowledge that the vermiculite from its mine was mixed with asbestos, which was so toxic that it not only poisoned Grace employees, but also people whose only connection to the mine was to live in the vicinity. Grace was able to get away with its deception for decades, in part because of the complicity of the local establishment, including the town's doctors and its hospital, and in part because asbestos-related disease develops decades after exposure, and often is not recognized for what it is.

But Libby's epidemic is not confined to a corner of Montana. Hundreds of townspeople are only the first wave of the afflicted. The second wave is already well under way, and its victims, who, by Grace's own very conservative estimate, are likely to number 30,000, have never been to Libby.

Some members of the second wave are identified, including dozens of people in St. Louis, Seattle, Minneapolis, Calgary, Winnipeg, Little Rock, and Marysville, Ohio. Some of them worked with asbestos-contaminated ore that was shipped out of Libby by the ton. Others lived downwind from factories where the ore from Libby was processed and packaged. Some live in homes that are insulated with tainted vermiculite. Still more were exposed to asbestos, some of which was from Libby, in the dust of pulverized building materials that blanketed Lower Manhattan when the World Trade Center collapsed.

No one knows if the rescue and recovery workers and others in the vicinity who inhaled that dust for weeks and months after September 11 - and those who continue to inhale it in workplaces and residences that have not been decontaminated -- will develop asbestos-related disease. Some experts believe that the exposure is not heavy enough to produce disease, but others, quoted in An Air That Kills, point to numerous cases of disease caused by brief exposures to asbestos.

"There were hundreds of tons of asbestos-loaded fire retardants on the steel trusses of the [World Trade Center's] lower floors," Dr. Philip Landrigan, professor of community and preventive medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, told the authors. "The emergency workers are going to suffer from increased disease," Landrigan continued, "and the amount of fibers probably being inhaled by those living and working in lower Manhattan presents serious questions for their future health." If asbestos from the World Trade Center collapse causes disease, it will, like all asbestos-related disease, be 10 to 30 years before producing symptoms.

The truth about the deadly hazard of Grace's vermiculite was brought to light by an unlikely trio: a daughter of a dead vermiculite miner, a newspaper reporter (who is one of the authors) and a mid-level EPA official. The miner's daughter realized that dust from the Grace mine was causing an epidemic of lung disease in Libby and began a crusade for justice; in 1999 the journalist documented the connection between the disease and the mine, triggering an EPA investigation; the investigating official stood up to pressure from Grace and from his superiors, who tried to discredit and downplay the evidence that the mine dust was killing Libby's residents.

The number of people at risk from exposure to the asbestos-contaminated vermiculite is staggering: Grace's estimate of 30,000 only includes its employees and workers who installed vermiculite insulation. In addition, EPA estimates that 13 million have been exposed to asbestos in and around any of more than 750 locations in the U.S. and Canada that received shipments directly from the mine. In the U.S., somewhere between 15 million and 35 million homes have vermiculite insulation, which can release asbestos fibers every time it is disturbed. After 9/11, hundreds of thousands more were exposed to Grace asbestos.

The authors show how widely Grace vermiculite was distributed in the U.S., but they can only hint at the harm it may have caused, because no one has performed the difficult and expensive studies that would be required to identify all those sickened by Grace's asbestos.

Having uncovered the origin of what could be a national epidemic of asbestos-related disease, the authors go further to show that Grace's Libby vermiculite is not the only source of deadly asbestos contamination that is taking a toll of unknown magnitude. An Air That Kills takes us to other foci of unchecked asbestos disease: another vermiculite mine in Virginia; iron mines in Minnesota and Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where the ore is contaminated with asbestos; talc mines in small upstate New York towns where the graveyards are filled with victims of asbestosis.

The "official" definition of asbestos and of an asbestos fiber is carefully dissected by the authors. Grace and other corporations are shown to have used their enormous influence to restrict both definitions in ways that make it possible for them to commerce in hazardous materials that are immune from regulation, including so-called "asbestos-free" talc that has been used in children's crayons, even though the miners who wrest it from the ground die of asbestosis.

There is even a huge quantity of asbestos that doesn't hide behind a phony definition. All manner of auto parts, brakes, clutches, gaskets, are manufactured with asbestos, exposing millions of auto mechanics, as well as do-it-yourselfers, to the deadly dust. Most of them don't even know there is asbestos in the dust, but the authors of An Air That Kills show that they have good reason to be ignorant - even the OSHA officials charged with preventing occupational exposure to asbestos aren't aware of the potential hazard.

An Air That Kills catalogs so many ongoing regulatory, legislative and scientific failures, which continue to put uncounted people at risk of preventable disease, that it is difficult to know where one would begin to correct the situation. The authors point out a place one might begin is in Congress, where two bills that could have an enormous impact are now under consideration. One is the "Ban Asbestos in America Act," which would make it illegal to import asbestos and would end the current practice of including it in building materials, auto parts, potting soil, and other products. The other bill is the so-called "Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act," which would create a special court to hear all lawsuits for injuries caused by asbestos.

The authors are clearly in favor of banning asbestos once and for all, and they deride the second bill because, in particular, it would make it impossible for people with non-occupational exposure to asbestos -- such as those who live in vermiculite-insulated homes and those who have been exposed to asbestos from the World Trade Center - to ever receive compensation.

The same forces of greed, carelessness and indifference that victimized Libby are still at work in Congress, in the regulatory agencies, and the boardrooms, striving to prevent corporate or official accountability and to maximize profits. The ongoing cleanup of Libby and the townspeople's success in winning some medical care and compensation represents an important victory for one group of victims. But An Air That Kills reveals that uncontrolled exposure to asbestos from Libby and elsewhere is a daily reality for millions of Americans.

Is it possible that with so many people at risk, a groundswell could develop to ban asbestos, to control exposure to what is already in place, and to ensure that those who are sick will be fairly compensated? The need is clear, but so is the power of those with another agenda.

This article contains copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I am making such material available in my efforts to advance understanding of democracy, economic, environmental, human rights, political, scientific, and social justice issues, among others. I believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material in this article is distributed without profit for research and educational purposes.

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