Thursday, May 23, 2024

National surveys looking at where and how much

| August 5, 2005 12:00 AM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

MISSOULA — Efforts are under way to determine the extent of asbestos contamination in communities where vermiculite ore from the former W.R. Grace plant was sent.

The Libby ore was shipped to more than 200 locations around the U.S. for handling and processing of commercial and consumer products, said Vikas Kapil of the Atlanta-based Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

He presented preliminary findings of the investigation on July 28 during an asbestos health conference at the University of Montana.

The first phase of the study includes health consultations at 28 locations.

"It's pretty clear there's a health hazard for past workers and household members," Kapil said. "The potential for exposure still exists in Libby and in other locations that received Libby ore."

The inquiry is looking into disease progression among workers in an Ohio vermiculite plant, he said, as well as mesothelioma incidences in New York, New Jersey and Wisconsin. So far, researchers have not noted significant community concern about potential contamination outside of Libby, Kapil said.

That's despite the fact that Grace's Libby mill produced the vast majority of the world's vermiculite, he said, and the presence of "pleural abnormalities" among Libby area residents registered 17.8 percent — much higher than the norm.

Part of the difficulty of researching mesothelioma is that people don't live long after getting the disease.

"Survival after diagnosis is very short," Kapil said.

However, investigators can interview surviving relatives and "those interviews are still important in getting information about mesothelioma," he said.

He emphasized that the study is a screening program rather than a diagnostic tool intended to make medical diagnoses. Part of the goal is to determine which fiber types are most toxic among naturally occurring asbestos.

There are some data gaps, however. Kapil said it's not certain what sort of lingering health effects are contained in tree bark and in the ground.

The study of exposure in cities across the country is in the third year of its five-year lifespan. More than 1,800 people have been screened, Kapil said.

In addition to the 28 "phase-one" communities being studied, investigations to evaluate cancer levels and mortality are now under way at almost 100 sites in 16 states, Kapil said.