When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set up an air monitoring station in Helena last fall, they didn’t expect to find anything.
That station was designed as a control against which to compare results from monitoring stations in Libby, where asbestos fibers from a W.R. Grace & Company vermiculite mine have been fingered as the culprit in approximately 400 deaths, and more than 1,000 cases of illness, by recent estimations.
But initial studies of a sample taken by the Helena monitor in October have turned up several asbestos fibers.
The EPA has begun an investigation into the source of the Helena fibers, originally sourced to Libby, but Fran Costanzi, one of the EPA’s project directors in Libby, says the EPA is still doing tests to make sure that the fibers did in fact originate there. Until that is confirmed, she says, it will be difficult to determine their origin more specifically.
John Podolinsky, who heads the Montana Asbestos Control Program, has also been looking into possible sources of the fibers. At first he theorized that remodeling work on a nearby house could have been the culprit, but as of Feb. 12, he wasn’t so sure.
“There could have been other sources too,” he says, including the possibility that the fibers might have piggybacked to Helena on someone who had been to Libby, or that the monitor itself was somehow contaminated.
Ultimately, he says, it may be impossible to de-termine exactly how the fibers got to Helena.
Should Helena residents be worried?
On one hand, Podolin-sky points out that federal standards for safe amounts of asbestos, which the Helena sample fell below, correspond to what microscopes were able to detect when the tests were designed 20 years ago, and not to actual health effects. There’s also the lack of any EPA-approved study showing just how dangerous the particular form of asbestos found in Libby is.
But the good news is that since October, the Helena monitor has not detected any more fibers.
Podolinsky hopes it stays that way.