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Asbestos Health Emergency Declared in Libby, Montana

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By David Goguen on June 17, 2009 1:41 PM

A public health emergency has been declared in Libby Montana, home to a mine formerly owned by chemical manufacturing giant W.R. Grace, and ground zero for hundreds of cases of death and illness tied to asbestos, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced today.

According to the EPA, the declaration of an asbestos-related public health emergency -- which covers the towns of Libby and neighboring Troy in northwest Montana -- is based on the incidence of the lung disease asbestosis in the Libby area, at a rate "staggeringly higher than the national average" from 1979 to 1998.

The EPA says that it will "move aggressively" to clean up the area, and is "making available a short-term grant to provide needed asbestos-related medical care to Libby and Troy residents." Read the EPA News Release on the Public Health Emergency in Libby, Montana.

Today's public health emergency declaration from the EPA is the first ever issued by the agency, according to CNN.com.

In the town of Libby (population approximately 2,600) at least 200 people have died from illnesses caused by asbestos, with hundreds more made seriously ill. In May, a federal jury acquitted chemical manufacturing giant W.R. Grace and three of its top executives in a federal criminal case that accused the company of causing -- and then attempting to cover up -- asbestos contamination in the Montana town. Grace had operated a vermiculite mine in Libby until around 1990.

From 1978 to 1998, deaths in Libby caused by asbestosis were approximately 40 to 60 times higher than what would be considered normal rates. And deaths from mesothelioma (another lung disease tied to asbestos exposure) were also elevated, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.