In Libby, asbestos disaster has taken toll on families and community
In an attempt to understand how the people of Libby have coped with years of asbestos exposure and the aftereffects, a team of researchers conducted focus groups and in-depth interviews with 71 residents, some of whom had asbestos-related disease or were close to someone who did, and some of whom were not affected at all.
The results of the study were surprising, said Heather Orom, assistant professor of community health and health behavior in the University of Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professions, and the study’s lead investigator.
"The casual observer might assume that when people become seriously ill and there are fatalities, that families would come together and support one another," Orom said. "But our research shows that often times, the opposite happens.
Victims are often stigmatized, Orem said. Other residents, fearing for the reputation of the town, do not believe claims of mine-related death and illness are entirely credible, and they consider the more than 200 lawsuits filed against the mine’s owner, W.R. Grace & Co., merely an attempt to cash in.
Grace shut down the mine in 1990. In September 2011, a Montana judge approved a $43 million settlement for more than 1,300 plaintiff’s who had been diagnosed with asbestos-related illness. Most had never worked in the mine, but were exposed to asbestos dust while washing the clothes of family members who worked at the mine. Others had spent their lives in Libby, where the air, water and soil was contaminated with asbestos-laden waste from the mine.
Meanwhile, a massive government-funded clean up of Libby and the nearby town of Troy continues. The Environmental Protection Agency, which called Libby “the most horrific environmental disaster in U.S. history,” has so far spent nearly $400 million dollars removing 825,000 cubic yards of asbestos-contaminated soil at nearly 1,500 homes and businesses.
While the clean-up has significantly reduced airborne concentrations of asbestos, the agency says certain activities can stir up asbestos fibers in enough quantity to pose a continuing hazard for residents.
For people like Orem, the Libby crisis is a textbook example of a "slow moving technological disaster,” in which the consequences of an event continue to evolve and there is no end, or “recovery,” in sight.
Orom and her colleagues identified five patterns of communications in the affected families: open/supportive; silent/supportive; open/conflictual; silent/conflictual and silent/denial. They believe two patterns in particular — silent and conflict communication — could have long-term implications by preventing people from seeking medical or psychological help. They could also prevent them from encouraging other family members from taking action, such as medical screening to determine if they, too, have the disease.
“It's not surprising that some families decide, ‘let's stop talking about it,’” Orem said. “Those who continue to bring it up are then labeled troublemakers. Those who are sick and are seen with their oxygen also get labeled. So, many people, especially those with symptoms, start to isolate themselves at home and that affects how and if they discuss their illness with family members."
Orem said understanding the communication patterns among Libby residents and victims of other slow-moving technological disasters could help policy makers craft more effective responses to such disasters.
"If there are real social and financial costs that result from these disasters and their effects on family relationships, for example, if divorces increase as a result, then maybe this kind of research can help move policies in a direction of being more protective of communities," she said.
The research was conducted on behalf of the National Center for Vermiculate and Asbestos-Related Cancers at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit. Funding came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.