Montana, the "last best place," home to national parks, grizzly bears and endless blue skies, is also home to one of the largest man-made asbestos disasters in the nation.
Nearly 20 years ago, investigative journalists Andrew Schneider and David McCumber documented how the owners of the W.R. Grace mine failed Montana when they knowingly sent the people of Libby into a mine contaminated with asbestos. The consequences of that decision were unconscionable. Three thousand of Libby’s residents suffered from lifelong asbestos-related illnesses and 300 more died.
That mine closed in 1990, but its product, the once-popular and profitable contaminated Zonolite insulation, is still found in homes across the nation. According to former Sen. Max Baucus, who sats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, “Zonolite attic insulation produced from Libby vermiculite is in an estimated 33 million homes in North America.” Despite the well-documented evidence of the health and environmental disaster in Libby, imports and use of this product have continued.
History can and should be a great teacher, but only to those willing to listen. Even educators need to listen to its lessons.
Earlier this month, the Missoulian reported the University of Montana detected asbestos in three offices in McGill Hall. It was reported that eight individuals were exposed to asbestos. A spokesperson for UM confirmed the site was sealed off, and warning signs were posted within the building to direct people away from any threat posed by the asbestos.
The UM released an official statement to reassure the community it was taking action:
“This substance is Chrysotile, the most commonly-encountered form of asbestos. While all types of asbestos are considered hazardous, studies show that low exposure to Chrysotile does not present a detectable risk to health" (PubMed, February 2013).
This, quite simply, is a lie. The facts are clear as the Kootenai River.
For more than a decade, the World Health Organization has stated unequivocally that exposure to all types of asbestos lead to mesothelioma, asbestosis and cancers of the lung, larynx and ovaries. The "anything but chrysotile" argument has remained a popular, and deadly, industry talking point to spin a disturbing truth: nearly 40,000 U.S. citizens die every year from asbestos-caused diseases.
UM’s assertion that its asbestos exposure could not present a health risk comes from one of the asbestos industry’s most notorious pro-asbestos promoters; toxicologist David Bernstein, whose research flies in the face of worldwide scientific consensus. He has banked millions of dollars doing the bidding of chemical companies over the course of his career. It’s a strategy that echos the old Big Tobacco playbook: insert doubt, suppress documents and spread propaganda to thwart increasingly damning evidence. It’s sad to see that the university fell for it.
While promising research for asbestos-caused diseases continue, prevention remains the only cure. Businesses, building owners and yes, universities, have a special responsibility to identify and manage asbestos-related risks — individual Americans cannot do this alone.
However, this is a teachable moment. UM needs to immediately correct their statement on the safety of chrysotile, and can use this occasion to educate its community about the dangers of asbestos and promote prevention.
For those who fight to breathe, and those who have buried loved ones, our pain is deep. But from pain comes power and we are galvanized in this fight for a healthier future.
The strong people of Montana can continue in solidarity to stop asbestos imports and use. It’s time to learn from the past, and call on the senators and representatives of “the last best place” to take a bold step forward to support a nationwide asbestos ban today.