An image of vermiculite ore.

Researchers to Assess Effects of Town's Vermiculite Ore Exposure

According to researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, thousands of residents and workers in Libby, Mont., have been exposed to asbestos-contaminated vermiculite ore, for nearly a century, leading to markedly higher rates of lung disease and autoimmune disorders, and causing Libby to be added to the federal Environmental Protection Agency's "National Priorities List" in 2002.

These researchers are leading a team of investigators from four institutions that are now launching three investigations into disease pathology in the town and to determine recommended cleanup efforts.

The principal investigator of the project is Stephen Levin, M.D., associate professor of preventive medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a nationally known expert in occupational medicine and asbestos-related diseases.

"The asbestos-related disease in Libby is far more aggressive and rapidly progressive than what's seen in most asbestos-exposed workers, with high rates of cancers and severe effects on respiratory function," said Levin who has also served as PI of the nationwide World Trade Center Medical Monitoring & Treatment Program coordinated by Mount Sinai since 2002. "For that reason alone, the health problems in Libby are important to study and understand."

The first of the three programs will focus on particular risks of exposure to Libby asbestos during childhood, when lungs are still developing and maturing. This research may determine the level of environmental cleanup necessary in Libby to protect children, who are a particularly sensitive target population.

A second study will compare lung scarring among Libby residents who were exposed to asbestos only in their environment (and not at their place of employment) with lung scarring seen in workers with historically long-term, heavy exposure to common commercial forms of asbestos. Researchers hope to discover why Libby residents have advanced rates of lung scarring. They will also investigate the mechanism for asbestos-related scar formation and approaches to preventing scar formation after exposure has already occurred.

The third investigation will examine the relationships between autoimmune disorders, autoimmune antibody abnormalities, and CT-scan evidence of scarring lung disease in the context of exposure to Libby asbestos. Auto-immune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus have been found to occur more frequently in Libby, and antibody levels to the body's own tissues are found in Libby residents more frequently and at higher concentrations.

Mount Sinai researchers will collaborate on the research effort--to be known as the Libby Epidemiology Research Program--with Libby's Center for Asbestos Related Disease (CARD), investigators from the University of Montana and Idaho State University, and a national scientific advisory group. The research will be supported by a grant of over $4.8 million from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) of the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

For more information, visit www.mountsinai.org.

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