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J Occup Environ Hyg. 2012;9(6):387-97. doi: 10.1080/15459624.2012.682217.

Amphibole asbestos in tree bark--a review of findings for this inhalational exposure source in Libby, Montana.

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  • 1Center for Environmental Health Sciences, The University of Montana, Missoula, Montana 59812, USA.


In June 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated the town of Libby, Montana, a public health emergency--the first and only time the EPA has made such a determination under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). From about 1920 until 1990, the leading source of vermiculite ore for the United States and the world was from a mine near Libby. This vermiculite ore was contaminated with fibrous and asbestiform amphibole in veins throughout the deposit. Today, areas surrounding the abandoned vermiculite processing/mining facilities and much of the town of Libby are contaminated with these asbestos fibers, contributing to an outbreak of asbestos-related diseases in the Libby population. Trees in Libby and in forested areas surrounding the abandoned mine have accumulated amphibole asbestos fibers on their bark surface, providing for inhalational exposures. Several studies have been conducted to further understand this exposure pathway. To address exposures to the public, Libby amphibole (LA) was measured in personal breathing zone and Tyvek surface wipe samples collected during firewood harvesting simulations, as well as in the ash and emissions of woodstoves when amphibole-contaminated firewood was combusted. Occupational studies simulating wildland firefighting and routine U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service activities have also been conducted in the forested areas surrounding the abandoned mine, demonstrating the potential for inhalational exposures during common regional workplace activities. We present a review of the findings of this emerging environmental health concern impacting not only the residents of Libby but applicable to other populations living near asbestos-contaminated areas.

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