April 25, 2016 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 3Comment

During 1999-2000, reporter Andrew Schneider blew the lid off the asbestos disaster in Libby, Montana. Schneider’s original stories, published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, drew national attention to the public health catastrophe in the town. The culprit was the W.R. Grace Company, with supporting roles played by lax regulatory agencies and cowardly public officials.

Schneider wrote dozens of articles for the Post-Intelligencer about the Libby disaster, including on the EPA’s eventual designation of parts of the town as a Superfund site (the most expensive in US history.) His reporting was consolidated into the 2004 book An Air That Kills: How the Asbestos Poisoning of Libby, Montana Uncovered a National Scandal.  Now Schneider is back with a sequel: The Air That Still Kills

I was surprised but thrilled to learn this morning about the sequel. I recall speaking to Andrew Schneider in 2009.  He told me he never ever wanted to write about asbestos again. It was just after W.R. Grace and three of its executives were acquitted of criminal charges. The Justice Department was pursuing a case that the defendants had knowingly exposed people to asbestos in their vermiculite product. After being submerged in the septic world of asbestos defenders and spineless regulators, I can understand why Schneider would feel that way.  But, I’m glad he didn’t keep his promise to stay away from any more asbestos stories. We all can now benefit from his sequel.

Schneider recently spoke with Linda Reinstein, President of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, about his book. He told her:

“The motivation for doing a second book on what began in Libby was two-fold: the story of what happened there didn’t end when the book was published and, of equal importance, the discoveries from the new research on the actual toxicity and health effects of the Libby asbestos were far more frightening than even the government had ever imagined.”

He added:

“We had gotten many calls and emails from people asking for an update on people like Les and Gayla and the three early EPA supermen – Paul Peronard, Chris Weis and Aubrey Miller. Many also wanted to know what happened during the painfully long, 10-week criminal trial of W.R. Grace v. the U.S. We offer a day-by-day breakdown of the courtroom antics, which many people believe wrongly kept the Justice Department from presenting evidence of Grace’s lethal actions.”

Much of the asbestos-contamination in Libby, Montana has been addressed. But a bigger Libby-related asbestos problem remains and its much bigger than Libby. W.R. Grace shipped their asbestos-laced vermiculite product across the country. I’ve seen estimates of as high as 35 million homes in the US have insulation comprised of Libby vermiculite.

As Schneider writes in an introduction to the sequel:

“Government regulators have turned a blind eye.”

Homeowners, remodelers, and demolition crews don’t have a clue that the strange-looking, vermiculite insulation they encounter in attics contains deadly asbestos fibers. Schneider’s sequel also reports on what scientists have learned about the Libby amphibole mineral:

“It sickens people faster and at much lower doses than the other types of asbestos that the government regulates.”

Seven years ago, I wrote a blog post here at TPH called “What’d we know without Andrew Schneider?” I continue to think the same thing about him.

An Air that Still Kills is a $14.99 bargain on iTunes and only $9.99 for a Kindle. I’m reading it tonight!



3 thoughts on “Libby asbestos disaster far from over, millions have no clue of the danger

  1. Consider that homes built in the 1920s often had lead water supply pipes (and perhaps lead sewer pipes). lead paint, as well as the vermiculite insulation. (I saw it in the attic of my grandparents home built in the 1920s.) But if your in the construction trades and pay any attention at all you should do this. Also consider that in the 1920s often steam heating pipes were wrapped with asbestos.
    Basically the rule needs to be that if the home is older than the date when things stopped being done before remodeling the home needs to be tested. Way back when the materials were not considered hazardous of course.
    Having seen clean ups on the remodeling shows the asbestos abatement company just comes in and vacuums up the vermiculite with special units, since in general it is loose in between the joists in the attic.
    Perhaps one way to help is to create public service adds stating when various substances were banned and urging folks to have properties tested if built before those dates.

  2. make the above know this i.e. folks in the construction trades show know the dates. Perhaps also create online adds and put posters up where building permits are issued.

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