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ATSDR continues toward understanding asbestos exposure

| August 31, 2005 12:00 AM

To the Editor:

Thank you for reporting on Dr. Vikas Kapil's recent presentation in Missoula regarding the continuing work of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and asbestos contamination in the U.S. Understanding the health impacts of asbestos exposure and preventing potential future exposures are top priorities for ATSDR.

Because there are so many activities under way, I thought it might be helpful to provide a brief summary of our national asbestos health project as it stands today.

ATSDR's work in this area is comprised of five parts:

1. Screening and Service to the Community of Libby, Mont.: ATSDR provides funding to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services to support ongoing screening of persons who worked or played in Libby for six months or more before December 31, 1990. This local program is called the Montana Asbestos Screening and Surveillance Activity (MASSA). MASSA is designed specifically for the residents of Libby. The program started in 2003 in response to the request from the community to provide the best available screening services to the residents of Libby. The staff is comprised of local residents who have extensive knowledge of the long-term health effects of the Libby mine and are deeply committed to serving the health needs of the community.

Since 2003, MASSA has served more than 2,200 current and former residents of Libby with initial and follow-up screenings. MASSA's screening program is widely recognized for its effectiveness. It is being proposed as a nationwide model for other areas affected by asbestos from the Libby mine.

2. National Asbestos Exposure Review (NAER): ATSDR, in several cases working with state health departments, is conducting exposure evaluations on 28 facilities that received the majority of the vermiculite mined in Libby from 1964 through 1980. Twelve of these exposure evaluations have been completed. Each has concluded that workers at these sites were most at risk for exposure to asbestos while the facilities processed vermiculite from the Libby mine. People who lived in their households also could have been exposed to asbestos. Most current residents living in the neighborhood are not being exposed to asbestos from these sites because the facilities no longer process vermiculite from the Libby mine. ATSDR is working with these communities to ensure that affected residents and health care providers have the best quality information to support health care decisions.

3. Health Statistics Reviews: ATSDR is reviewing death certificates and cancer registries in approximately 100 communities in 16 states to evaluate the effects of past exposure to asbestos and to Libby vermiculite. The five completed health statistics reviews have not found any excess of asbestos-related disease.

4. Community Screening Projects: In 2006, ATSDR expects to begin community screening projects at three sites that received Libby vermiculite. These projects will evaluate the potential health impact of past exposure to Libby vermiculite and are based on the work first done in Libby.

5. Naturally Occurring Asbestos: All asbestos occurs as a natural process of mineral formation. "Naturally Occurring Asbestos" is the term used to refer to asbestos encountered as a result of contact with natural outcroppings, rocks, and weathered material through activities not normally associated with mining or commercial use of asbestos. In some cases, such as El Dorado Hills, Calif., asbestos fibers have been released when construction activities opened veins of asbestos. Working with the EPA and the state health department, ATSDR is conducting a health assessment in El Dorado Hills to assist the community in understanding the risk of asbestos exposure and to make recommendations to protect the health of community residents.

While we have many projects under way, there are still gaps in scientific knowledge. Potential areas for future study include possible exposure from asbestos in soil and tree bark, differing toxicity of various forms of asbestos and other similar fibers, and whether such contamination poses a potential health risk.

ATSDR continues to work to understand the health effects of asbestos exposure and to provide information to affected communities and health care professionals across the country. We appreciate the involvement and interest of current and former residents of Libby in this important health outreach.

Dan Strausbaugh

ATSDR/Montana Office

State sends clear message to students about tobacco

To the Editor:

With the Montana Tobacco-Free Schools measure, the state is sending a clear message to our youth: any tobacco is harmful to one's health. There is no room for doubt any more about the dangers of secondhand smoke, and those dangers are well known: A lit cigarette produces more than 4,000 chemicals, 60 of which are known carcinogens (cancer-causing). By having adults not use tobacco on school property, Montana is creating a strong atmosphere for prevention so that our youth will not begin this deadly habit. We care about our kids! Let's not have them breathe our secondhand smoke or trigger a possible life threatening asthma attack.

The 2005 Legislature strengthened Montana's law regarding tobacco-free schools by passing House Bill 643 in April. This law requires all K-12 public schools in Montana to ensure that school buildings and property are tobacco free. It prohibits anyone from using tobacco products in a public school building or on school property, 24 hours a day, every day of the year. This includes all forms of tobacco including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, snuff and smokeless tobacco. It applies to everyone who is on school grounds including buildings, parking lots, athletic fields and vehicles. The law includes exemptions for educational demonstrations in classroom sanctioned activities and for American Indian cultural use under the Religious Freedom Act. Possession of tobacco products by students is still prohibited under previous state law.

This new law goes into effect on Oct. 1, 2005. Currently, tobacco use policies vary widely among Montana's many school districts. The new law ensures consistency among schools. This consistency will send a clear message to kids and adults everywhere that tobacco use of any kind, not just smoking, is a hazardous, unhealthy behavior that is inappropriate at any facility intended to foster the growth and education of Montana's most precious resource - our children. This strong statewide law will help make all tobacco use less socially and culturally acceptable, which ultimately will lead to less smoking and chewing by youth now and in the future.

It will be up to the individual principals of the schools or their designees to enforce the new law. We want our kids to obey the laws. Let's set a good example. Let's partner and support our schools and our principals by respecting the new law.

Montanans wanting help in quitting smoking are encouraged to call the Montana Quit Line, 866-485-QUIT (7848). For more information about the new law, please call Barb Guthneck at 293 3951.

Barb Guthneck

Eileen Carney

Laura Sedler

Carol Holoboff

Claire Evans

Sharon Pesicka

Laura Wilson

Helen Clarke

Gayla Benefield

Maria Clemons

Ashley Day

Lauren Gautreaux

Tanis Hernandez

Kandis Peterson

Michael Diesey

Robbin Skaggs

Jeanie Gentry