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Study: Even Montanans with Low Asbestos Exposure Have Lung Damage

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 By Deborah Smith/Don Mathisen, Contact
March 14, 2008

Missoula, MT – The "good news" that a $250 million payment is headed to Montana to help pay for asbestos cleanup in Libby is being tempered by a study released today on lasting physical damage from the mineral. The findings are in the current issue of the "American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine," published today.

The medical researchers found that Montanans exposed to vermiculite from the Libby mine developed chest wall scarring years later, even if they were exposed to only low levels of the material, such as people who were living in town rather than those actually working at the mine.

Dr. James Lockey is the lead researcher for the study. He was surprised to learn the asbestos fibers caused damage so many years later.

"It does indicate that these fibers that were in the Libby vermiculite source can cause inflammation at a relatively low concentration."

Lockey did the initial research in 1980 that connected vermiculite to lung damage.

The company that operated the Libby mine announced this week that it will contribute $250 million for investigation and cleanup around the site.

Dr. Lockey says damage associated with low-level exposure is not, in itself, life-threatening, but there are other life-style factors that can make it dangerous for some people.

"If they're cigarette smokers, they definitely need to stop smoking because of the interaction between this fiber and cigarette smoking and risks of future types of lung disease."

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