Asbestos’ accomplice in Libby 

Through mid-January, students at Montana Tech will conduct a telephone survey of Libby residents to ask them about a serious risk to their respiratory systems, and for once, the risk researchers are interested in doesn’t come from W.R. Grace’s former vermiculite mine. Instead, students are asking Libby residents about their home heating systems; they’re specifically interested in how many Libby residents are using old wood stoves for heat.

Bob Habeck, air program manager for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, says that the Environmental Protection Agency has officially recognized Libby as exceeding public health standards for air quality based on three years of monitoring. Habeck says that wood particulate matter from wood-burning stoves exacerbates Libby’s asbestos problem.

“Research showed that 80 percent of the particulate matter in the air came from wood stoves,” Habeck says. “You can actually fingerprint ‘whodunit.’”

Could such findings exclude asbestos victims from compensation by calling into question what caused their lung problems?

“No,” says Habeck, because lung tissue scarring caused by asbestos shows up differently on X-rays than problems caused by wood particulate, a statement confirmed by Pat Cohan in Libby’s Center for Asbestos-related Disease, or CARD Clinic.

Neither asbestos nor wood particulate is likely to escape Libby via dispersion due to the area’s geography and climate inversions.

“It’s kind of like Missoula valley with the pulp mill down there,” Libby resident David Benefield says. “In the winter, that stuff just doesn’t clear out.”

Ultimately, the goal of the study is to wean Libby residents off wood stoves. Habeck also says he realizes that many people in Libby may not be able to afford new heating systems; the EPA is currently searching for funds to help offset the cost for residents to make cleaner-burning upgrades.

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