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Human face put on Libby asbestos tragedy

| August 5, 2005 12:00 AM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

MISSOULA — A battery of physicians and researchers presented detailed statistical information about asbestos-related disease during the recent asbestos conference at the University of Montana.

However, Pat Cohan of Libby put a human face on Libby's tragedy during her June 28 presentation.

Cohan, of the Center for Asbestos Related Disease, described how a town that has endured plenty of hits over generations took its worst blow at the hands of W.R. Grace, with loss of trust central to the tragedy.

"Its trust was betrayed by federal and state government and by industry," she said. "Trust has become an issue for every project. Industry, government and Libby's own community kept the dirty little secret for over 20 years. I cannot over-emphasize this broken trust."

There was lots of denial by local residents, too. Cohan contrasted what happened in Libby with fast "in-your-face" tragedies such as hundreds dying in a coal mine accident or natural catastrophe.

"If it takes decades to occur, it's easy to deny it has happened," Cohan said. "That's what happened in Libby."

What she called a "slow-motion disaster" fractured the populace.

"The town was extremely polarized," she said. "Even families were split right down the middle."

However, after the debate over who was to blame and who was going to fix the huge environmental contamination problem, Libby residents have come together through research, Cohan said. Whether it's finding effective medications and treatments or seeking ways to boost the area's economy hurt by the asbestos story, Cohan said even diverse groups now see research as "a golden hope."

"Research is part of recovery," she said. "That's how we view it in Libby."

There is almost a fever to learn more about the disease, with many victims eager to participate in studies, she said.

Cohan recalled one asbestos victim who came to the CARD clinic for a blood test, mistakenly believing he was there to have part of his lung removed. He willingly took off his shirt to prepare for the procedure before Cohan told him it wasn't necessary.

"The attitude is almost, 'I have the disease. I have a family. If you want a whole lung and an arm you can have it,'" Cohan said.

Medical providers and other care-givers walk a difficult path between doing all they can for patients while maintaining as much privacy as possible.

"Sharing and protecting information becomes a challenge because everyone is related in some sense," she said of the small town.

Tanis Hernandez, a licensed social worker and counselor at the CARD clinic, spoke during the conference about psychological and social impacts caused by the asbestos controversy.

"The denial that this could have happened, the anger and the belligerence arose as people realized this had happened," she said. "The question became, 'Are you with those radical activists or are you trying to protect the town's reputation?' It split families.

"In Libby, when we're stressed we head for the woods, we go fly fishing. When you're too weak to do that, it adds even more stress. (Victims') anxiety about what the future holds for themselves and their family is just overwhelming."

Core beliefs were ripped apart when people learned their supposedly safe world was actually a huge threat to them, she said. Even those with clean health screenings have nagging anxiety, wondering whether the disease is just not showing up yet, Hernandez said.

As frustration increases, so does victims' anger and sense of injustice, she said.

"The fear of the cost of health care needs is huge in our community. Research is the hope for the future, but people have many other needs too."