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The Legacy of Libby, Montana: Why Asbestos Once Lived in Our Homes

The Legacy of Libby, Montana: Why Asbestos Once Lived in Our Homes

Libby, Montana is a green place. Small, too. To the naked eye, it’s a scenic destination. Lots of lakes, a handful of gorgeous state parks thick with forest, and near the town, the lazy Kootenai River flows languidly. Looking at it, you’d think that it’s the perfect place to move to for your retirement. After all, costs in Libby are 8.5% lower than the rest of the United States. Even for a mountain town, it’s cheaper than lots of places in Montana. In 2020, the total population was 9,772, and that was after people started coming back to Libby.

So, why did they leave?

You see, Libby, Montana once exported 80% of the world’s vermiculite. Vermiculite is a mineral that, when pure, can help replenish the oxygen in soil. It both improves seed germination, as well as soil structure. It can also be used to insulate homes and was previously used in a lot of construction work. And the people of Libby, Montana, took pride in that. True to its character, Libby’s town motto is (ironically): Building a Healthy Growing Community.

Gold miners discovered the mineral in the 1880s, and in the 1920s, the Zonolite Company set up shop and started mining vermiculite so that it could be exported domestically, and then internationally, making sure that it met the consumer demand for vermiculite when it came to construction and gardening.


Vermiculite.
Vermiculite.


But what the miners and the people of Libby, Montana didn’t know, was that the vermiculite they were so carefully mining and shipping off around the country was tainted with an insidious form of asbestos.

The Discovery of Asbestos

The word asbestos comes from the Greek word sasbestos, which means unquenchable or inextinguishable. The Greeks, Egyptians, and other ancient civilizations quickly caught on to asbestos’ unique, fire-proof properties. Some used asbestos for making cooking ware, while others, such as Pliny the Elder, a historian, naturalist, and philosopher, noticed that slaves who worked in the asbestos mines would eventually die from a mysterious lung disease. Slaves that worked in the mines would even try to protect themselves by using a goat or lamb bladder to try to keep themselves from breathing in asbestos.

Although the harmful effects of asbestos have been well-documented throughout the years, asbestos fibers continued to be used in funeral shrouds, tablecloths, firefighter uniforms, and even bank notes. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that asbestos began to pose a large-scale health risk.

The W.R. Grace Company

In the early 1900s, E.N. Alley, a gold prospector, struck his pickaxe against a vein of vermiculite. Libby is an area rich in gold, silver, lead, and other minerals, and hundreds flooded the area looking to make it rich. He noticed that when he held a piece of vermiculite near his lantern, that the heat caused the material to expand and change color. Intrigued, he bought Rainy Creek, the place where he found the vermiculite deposit, and soon started mining the material. His mining operation became official with the establishment of the Zonolite Company in 1919. Because of his marketing prowess and curiosity, Alley discovered that vermiculite could be used to lighten soil, insulate homes—and even build them. A natural businessman, Alley was able to create a market for vermiculite, and in 1963, Zonolite was acquired by the W.R. Grace company.


The W.R. Grace Company.
The W.R. Grace Company.

W.R. Grace knew that they had found their cash cow, and for the next seven decades (1919 to 1990), 80% of the world’s vermiculite flowed out of the Zonolite Mine. But the W.R. Grace company was aware of the health hazards miners faced every day. Their company records indicated that 92% of the mine workers had lung abnormalities in the lining of their respiratory system—all due to an insidious form of asbestos called Libby Asbestos Amphibole, or LAA.

Libby Asbestos Amphibole

The reason asbestos is so dangerous to people’s health is because asbestos fibers can’t be broken down. Instead, the inhaled fibers continue to sit in the pleural lining of the lungs, causing inefficient autoimmune responses, and even scarring the lungs themselves. The Libby Asbestos Amphibole found in the Zonolite Mine was a toxic cocktail of several different types of asbestos.

Anywhere from three to five different types of asbestos are crammed together in LAA, making it a dense mineral that can easily break apart precisely because the fibers are so unevenly clumped together. The LAA asbestos fibers could break down into tinier fibers that would then be reduced into even tinier needle-like particles in the lungs—causing severe health complications such as asbestosis or mesothelioma.


Anatomy of Libby Asbestos Amphibole fibers.
Anatomy of Libby Asbestos Amphibole fibers.


Failure to Protect Families

W.R. Grace ran the old Zonolite Mine from 1963 until it closed in 1990. Like I mentioned before, the company knew the danger it was putting people in—which is what burns me up the most. Because the miners were hard workers, and their health was put on the line in a way no 9 to 5 should ever be allowed to do.

About eighteen different pathways were documented when it came to figuring out how the people of Libby, Montana had gotten asbestos poisoning. But the truth is, nobody had a snowball’s chance in Hell of getting away from asbestos in that town. Close to 5,000 pounds of asbestos dust were released into the air daily due to the mine.

Later on, studies would find that the twenty year mortality rate from asbestos in Libby, Montana, was 40% to 60% higher than when compared to the rest of the country. And to top it all off, the families of the miners suffered too. Workers would leave the mines absolutely exhausted, covered in asbestos dust because W.R. Grace had decided that having showers for company employees simply wasn’t cost-effective. As a result, 25% of the miners’ families also developed lung abnormalities due to asbestos exposure.


Asbestos hazard warning sign.
Asbestos hazard warning sign.


The Legacy of Libby, Montana

Although the asbestos mine was closed in 1990, it was too little too late. The damage was done. And even then, the Libby mine was only listed as a superfund site in 2002. At a federal court case in 2009, W.R. Grace was found not guilty of knowingly contaminating the people of Libby, Montana with asbestos.

Over the years, the Libby legacy has been highly controversial. Despite people having moved back to the town, that doesn’t mean that it’s safe. The final cleanup at the site was completed by the EPA in 2018. But I can't say that the slow speed at which the site was cleaned up would motivate me to buy a home there.

Asbestos was once seen as a house building miracle. It was strong, cheap, and impervious to everything: fire, water, electricity—even chemicals. Many homes built between the ‘20s thru the‘70s had asbestos, a practice that is now (thankfully) completely banned. While the US has no national ban on asbestos (meaning that many products still contain it), asbestos can no longer be used to build homes. That, and the fact that building codes have been upgraded since 2002, make me very glad to be a mortgage broker in this day and age, when housing programs and building codes have been consistently improving for the first time in decades.


The Kootenai River.
The Kootenai River.


Do Your Research When Buying a Home

Taking into account the environment your future home is located in is important. The truth is that four walls and a roof don’t make a home. Owning a home is about living a lifestyle rooted in stability—and that means that your life will be centered around community—no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Naturally, it’s important that you feel safe in your community, and that includes your health. That’s why I’m sharing this information with you. While homes are no longer built with asbestos, you should still make sure to always do your research and learn about the history of the property you’re buying—the year it was built, and any other important facts about its construction. The only time a house should take your breath away is when you realize that it’s the right fit for the next chapter in your life.