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Idaho State University to help Mount Sinai School of Medicine assess health impacts of asbestos contamination in Libby, Mont.

November 2, 2009
ISU Marketing and Communications

Residents and workers in Libby, Mont., where thousands have been exposed to asbestos-contaminated vermiculite ore for over nine decades, will benefit from three key scientific investigations, which include a research project by the Idaho State University Department of Biological Sciences, launched this month by Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City,

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.

One program, led by Jean Pfau, Idaho State University assistant professor of immunotoxicology, will compare production of blood serum antibodies among Libby residents who were exposed to asbestos only in their environment (and not at their place of employment) with antibodies seen in workers with historically long-term, heavy exposure to common commercial forms of asbestos.

Autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus have been found to occur more frequently in Libby than would normally be expected, and antibody levels to the body’s own tissues are found in Libby residents more frequently and at higher concentrations. It is not known whether these outcomes are specific to the Libby asbestos or common to all asbestos exposures. The study should also help determine how much asbestos exposure is necessary to cause autoimmune signs and symptoms.

“I am a sub-project principle investigator on the autoimmune project within this large grant to Mount Sinai School of Medicine,” Pfau said. “My lab will oversee that project, and will receive $290,893 over the five years of the project, beginning this fall.”

The research project will also examine the relationships between autoimmune disorders, auto-immune antibody abnormalities, and CT scan evidence of scarring lung disease in the context of exposure to Libby asbestos.  Researchers hope to discover why Libby residents seem to have advanced rates of lung scarring, as well as the mechanism for asbestos-related scar formation and approaches to preventing scar formation after exposure has already occurred.

Another 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, a particularly sensitive target population. 

The Principal Investigator of the project is Stephen Levin, MD, associate professor of preventive medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a nationally known expert in occupational medicine and asbestos-related diseases who has also served as PI of the nationwide World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program, coordinated by Mount Sinai since 2002.

“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 Dr. Levin.  “For that reason alone, the health problems in Libby are important to study and understand."

The crisis in Libby, a mining town whose history has been shaped by vermiculite-producing corporations since the 1920s, is the result of community-wide occupational and environmental exposure to Libby's naturally occurring vermiculite, contaminated with asbestos and asbestos-like silicate fibers up to 26 percent by weight.

Health effects have been detected not just in mine and processing plant workers, area lumber mill workers and loggers (from asbestos dusting of forests) and their families, but also among other Libby residents and their children.  Many were exposed through ambient air or to mine tailings and other contaminated materials provided to the town by mining companies for the construction of ball fields, school running tracks, playgrounds, public buildings and facilities, as well as for private gardens and house and business insulation.

There is evidence that even relatively low-level exposures to Libby asbestos can cause serious scarring lung diseases, which markedly impair respiratory function, as well as asbestos-related cancers like lung cancer and mesothelioma, which occur at higher rates among the Libby population than elsewhere in the United States.

The health crisis potentially extends far beyond the borders of Libby, since millions of homes and businesses in North America have used vermiculite from Libby as attic insulation, fireproofing and soil conditioner. The ore from Libby was shipped by rail to 49 plant locations throughout North America and the Caribbean for processing, exposing many more workers and communities to the hazardous dust.

The Mount Sinai Medical Center encompasses The Mount Sinai Hospital and Mount Sinai School of Medicine. The Mount Sinai Hospital is one of the nation’s oldest, largest and most-respected voluntary hospitals. Founded in 1852, Mount Sinai today is a 1,171-bed tertiary-care teaching facility that is internationally acclaimed for excellence in clinical care.

Mount Sinai School of Medicine is internationally recognized as a leader in groundbreaking clinical and basic science research, as well as having an innovative approach to medical education. With a faculty of more than 3,400 in 38 clinical and basic science departments and centers, Mount Sinai ranks among the top 20 medical schools in receipt of National Institute of Health (NIH) grants. For more information, please visit www.mountsinai.org.


Contact: Jean C. Pfau, ISU Assistant Professor of Immunotoxicology, (208) 282-3914 or pfaujean@isu.edu; or Mount Sinai Newsroom, (212) 241-9200 or NewsMedia@mssm.



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