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Guest Column: Despite trial outcome, Grace has responsibility in Libby

by Carol Holoboff
| May 21, 2009 12:00 AM

W.R. Grace and some of the company’s former executives were acquitted from the charges that they knowingly endangered residents of Libby and concealing the health effects of its asbestos mining operation.

Certainly, the operative word is knowingly and there are those in Libby who say the miners knew the stuff wasn’t any good for them, but they made a good living. There are others who say W.R. Grace should have told them, if they knew, but the jury determined they did not know.

Studies have determined that asbestos exposure can cause life-threatening illness and health studies on the individuals who worked at the mine or lived in Libby during the years the mine was operating show a significant increase in asbestos-related diseases.

However, to suggest to the outside world that over 2,000 individuals in Libby, which has a population of less than 10,000, are near death’s door is simply journalistic hyperbole.

The media gobbled up the story and the pictures of hundreds of handmade wooden crosses in the Libby cemetery that were said to represent individuals who died from exposure to asbestos. The crosses were made and activists who believed the deaths were from asbestos wrote the names on them.

Andrew Schneider, a senior national correspondent for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer at the time, published a book with editor David McCumber as a result of his journalistic investigations in Libby during the time Gov. Judy Martz used her one silver bullet to make Libby a Superfund site.

In the book, “An Air That Kills, How the Asbestos Poisoning of Libby, Montana, Uncovered a National Scandal,” Schneider set the benchmark for journalists writing about W.R. Grace and Libby with his blatant depiction of Libby residents “walking to the post office with slow, shuffling steps, rolling what’s left of their lives beside them in green tanks.”

In actuality, except for those suffering from actual life-threatening illness, such as lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis, visitors to Libby would be hard pressed to identify the rest of the 2,000 who have been labeled with an asbestos-related disease.

Asbestos screenings conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry and the Montana Asbestos Screening and Surveillance Activities from 2000 through 2008 consisted of computerized interviews, chest x-rays and pulmonary function tests.

B-Readers, specially trained radiologists and pulmonologists determined from these screenings of more than 7,000 individuals who did or did not have ARD. The majority of identified abnormalities were pleural plaques.

Medical professionals explain that a pleural plaque is similar to a callus like those formed around a sliver.  Asbestos fibers lodged in the pleural lining of the lung cause such a callus to form.

Pleural plaques do not turn into asbestosis and most people will die from another cause long before the plaques could cause serious medical problems. When individuals say that they and numerous members of their family have “it,” they probably mean that they have pleural plaques.

A visitor to Libby will find the residents going about their daily lives in the same manner as those in other small Montana towns. Some of those who say W.R. Grace should have warned them about the dangers of working at the mine continue to smoke despite the warnings of the surgeon general and the brochures warning them that smoking increases the chance of an ARD to result in cancer by over 90 percent.

Zonolite, the name of the mine before W.R. Grace bought it, began operating in 1939.  As most of us over the age of 70 hate to admit, most of us smoked in those years and maybe some of the senior citizens of Libby pulling green tanks also have emphysema and COPD.

Health-care services, such as the Center for Asbestos Related Disease and the work of the Environmental Protection Agency, may have boosted the economy of Lincoln County, but W.R. Grace has also spent vast sums of money on cleanup and health care.

Certainly, despite the jury’s decision to acquit the huge corporation of criminal conduct, a responsibility for the conditions in Libby must be assigned to W.R. Grace and certainly, despite the assumption that individuals are dying in the streets of Libby from asbestos-related disease, journalists have a responsibility to bring factual reports of the tragedy to the outside world.

(Carol Holoboff is a registered nurse who worked for the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry in Libby and served as coordinator of the Montana Asbestos Screening and Surveillance Activities. She contributes to Healthy Montana and writes a monthly column for The Western News).