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An Asbestos Town

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In the early 20th century, a man decided to capitalize on the vermiculite he found near Libby, Montana and open a mine to sell this excellent type of insulation to whoever would buy it. This mine was owned by the company the man founded until the 1960s when it was bought by a different, larger corporation. Later on, after the purchase, it became more widely known that the vermiculite in the mine was contaminated with asbestos. At this point, the owner of the mine should have closed it. Unfortunately for the residents of Libby, the mine remained open until 1990.

It is not an uncommon occurrence for a vermiculite mine to be contaminated by asbestos fibers. The two mineral fibers are formed in very similar ways. Because of this, where there is one fiber, there is frequently the other. Once a mine has been contaminated, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to remove all of the asbestos fibers from the mine. The biggest difficulty is that the fibers are frequently intertwined in the rocks. This makes it nearly impossible to decontaminate a vermiculite mine. For this reason, once a mine has been contaminated it is usually closed.

The mines in Libby were contaminated by asbestos at some point between their opening and 1990, when they were closed. This means that any person who worked in the mines was likely exposed to the deadly fibers of asbestos without knowing it. Asbestos is known to contribute to or cause a variety industrial - of forms of cancer as well as other deadly diseases. 

Many modern mines offer showers and changes of clothes for their employees to use, rather than bring their dirty work suits home to their families. The showers are meant to be a way to allow the miners to remove the soot and dust from their persons before they go home. This allows them to track less dirt everywhere which, in turn, makes everyone marginally happier at the end of the day.

The mines of Libby did not offer showers or clothes to their employees. This means that every miner took his or her own clothes home at the end of the day, after they had been used in the mines all day. While dirt may be one issue, the bigger issue is that the clothes had been contaminated by asbestos while they were in the mines all day. Once the clothes were contaminated, the fibers were trapped and taken home to be "shared" with other members of the family, particularly those that did the laundry.

Libby has been so contaminated by asbestos that individuals who do not have any connection to the mines are now turning up with asbestos-related disease symptoms. So far, more than 2,600 people have been treated at the free asbestos clinic in town since it was opened. The town's population is only about 2,700.