Missoulian, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2001

Libby asbestos problems have Minnesota health officials on the alert

Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- The results of recent medical exams in Libby that show roughly one-third of people tested have lung abnormalities as a result of asbestos exposure have heightened concerns of Minnesota health officials.

W.R. Grace and Co., owner of a Libby vermiculite mine that closed in 1990 but has been blamed for more than a hundred deaths and hundreds of illnesses, also operated a plant in Minneapolis that processed the ore.

Rita Messing, a toxicologist for the Minnesota health department, called the Libby health tests "alarming."

Preliminary test results in Libby, conducted by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, showed lung abnormalities in higher percentages than expected for people who didn't work at the mine and had no known exposure to the vermiculite dust.

"We've been worried from the beginning about people in the community," not just those who worked at the plant," Messing said. "I think it adds urgency to what we're trying to do."

Messing is overseeing plans for a $350,000 survey to assess the possible asbestos exposure of 6,000 past and present residents of the Minneapolis neighborhood near a vermiculite processing plant that operated from 1938 to 1989.

Chris Weis, a toxicologist for the Environmental Protection Agency who is working with the ATSDR, said the early results are unprecedented.

"What we're finding is absolutely astounding," he said. "We've never seen anything like this before in this country, where ambient air exposures to asbestos, apparently of a residential population, have caused this level of biological changes or effects on the lung."

Weis said that "not only Minneapolis, but every other area where processing took place, should take heed of these findings.

The clear indication is that if you lived near one of these processing plants, your risk of debilitating and possibly lethal lung disease is extremely high." Doctors, lawyers and family members have alleged that microscopic asbestos fibers contributed to the deaths of at least 21 men who worked at the Grace plant in Minneapolis and a separate vermiculite operation a few blocks away owned by the B.F. Nelson Co.