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Researching the Effects of Asbestos Exposure

ARRA Success Story


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Brad Black, M.D.

Center for Asbestos Related Disease

Brad Black, M.D., is the Medical Director of the Center for Asbestos Related Disease in Libby, Montana. Listen to Dr. Black discuss the town of Libby and the concern over asbestos exposure in the community

Brad Black

"We're trying to make sure we don't put our kids at risk for developing health effects from ongoing asbestos exposure in the community."

- Brad Black, M.D.

Black discusses the community-based Center for Asbestos Related Disease

My name is Brad Black. I have been a physician in the town of Libby, Montana for 33 years. And the last 10 years I’ve spent doing pulmonary care and being the medical director for the Center for Asbestos Related Disease, which is a community-based organization that’s run by a local volunteer board. And I’ve had the good fortune to be there to help in this process and provide a resource for the community to help address the public health impacts from this asbestos exposure.

Center for Asbestos Related Disease

Black discusses the town of Libby, Montana

Libby, Montana is a beautiful community. It's built around the logging industry as well as some mining industry, once again with vermiculite being mined, that sits isolated in northwest Montana. It's 90 miles from the next closest larger town, Kalispell, Montana, and then 156 miles from Spokane, Washington, which is the next largest community - so, quite isolated in the mountainous areas of western Montana. And it’s an area that’s easily forgotten and, fortunately, we’ve had plenty of attention now to try to really help solve our problems, so we feel like we’re making some good headway in terms of making sure our community is safe. Asbestos and Libby, Montana

Black discusses vermiculite mining and how children were exposed to asbestos

Aerial photo of Libby, Montana
The town of Libby, Mont., where 70 years of vermiculite mining has led to asbestos exposure in generations of the town's residents

Over 70 years of vermiculite mining asbestos that was associated with the vermiculite mining was distributed through a great portion of our community. It was in piles in town around the ball parks. It was processed in the downtown area and areas where people recreated and it was transported by train in open box cars, clearly providing ample exposure for many people that were not occupied by the vermiculite mine who, however came in contact with asbestos form materials just by living there. And the piles around the town were exceedingly fun to play in. And the material, vermiculite, it was very slick. Kids could get in the pile, slide down in them and many of them took great joy of playing in those on a regular basis. In addition to that, it was a lot of fun to pick up the material, take it home and then heat it in the skillet and you could cause it to expand. The vermiculite would expand forming the popcorn like Styrofoam-type material used in soil conditioning and things like that that you see in potting soils.

Vermiculite Mining and Children

Black discusses the need for more research, particularly in vulnerable populations

What happened to these kids? These kids' lungs were developing. A young man’s lungs aren’t fully developed until they’re age 22 and young ladies around age 18. Their lungs are finally fully developed. So what happens when these younger kids who got exposed and played in these piles got asbestos fibers in their alveolar, the sacks in their lungs and caused toxic reaction and injury? What had happened is this reduced their lung development potential over time. They always performed below what would be expected as they continued to mature. These are areas that are extremely important to understand because when we’re done with the clean up in Libby there’s always going to be some fibers left. Now how many of those are we going to be able to tolerate? Well, if we have a vulnerable population like children who are at greater risk with lesser doses of fibers, then we want to make sure we understand that. More Asbestos Research Needed

Black discusses how Recovery Act funding has expanded and benefited the research

A female medical technician tests a smiling woman for asbestos
Staff evaluates a member of the community at the Center

This is where the Recovery Act funding has provided us this opportunity working with the University of Cincinnati and our own Center for Asbestos-Related Disease in Libby to put together a project working in collaboration with the ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) where we will go back and try to look at a young population where they’d gone through asbestos screening in the year 2000 and 2001, but were not at an age where they could receive an x-ray. But they so happened to be a population that has relatively lower exposure. What we want to do is follow them up now over these next few years and do health studies trying to determine if some of these individuals have developed any asbestos-related abnormalities. This would be extremely important to know and certainly this population it's going to be important to follow over time, too, because we know it takes longer times in some people to show ill effects from their asbestos exposure. But it’s ever so important to know this because if we are finding kids with low exposures suggesting they are more vulnerable, then this would then help us in our risk assessments, trying to understand really how clean are we going to have to clean our community up to make sure we don’t put our kids at risk for developing some complications, health effects from ongoing asbestos exposure in the community.

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