Friday, January 30, 2004

Asbestos Exposure in South St. Louis: Government Knew, Citizens Didn't

It never seems to end. Company and government know people are being exposed to toxic chemicals (in this case, asbestos-contaminated vermiculite), but no one tells the people being exposed. This is another article in a series by journalist Andrew Schneider who broke the story of massive asbestos exposures in the town of Libby, Montana. Except in this article, the exposed community is South St. Louis, which processed the ore from Libby.

About 24 years ago, federal health investigators learned that a vermiculite processing plant in south St. Louis was spewing potentially lethal asbestos fibers over homes, schools and businesses. The government warned no one.


The government had known for decades that both the mine and the plants that processed the tainted vermiculite presented a danger to those working there and those who lived nearby.

An EPA report in June 1980 said "workers who mine or process vermiculite from (Libby) are exposed thereby to asbestos levels that present a significant risk of serious asbestos-related disease."

In that report and in others released in 1985 and 1991, EPA investigators estimated that more than 13 million people lived close enough to expansion plants to be exposed to some level of asbestos. In reality, the population actually exposed to asbestos levels that could cause disease is far lower, with some health authorities estimating that fewer than 300,000 people nationwide lived within a mile of the plants when they operated.

The vermiculite expansion plant most thoroughly studied by those doing the EPA reports was the Grace St. Louis facility.

The investigators examined the quantity of vermiculite being processed, the hours of operation, the number of nearby residents, the amount of asbestos being released into the air and the round-the-clock direction of the wind over the plant. The St. Louis operation was presented by EPA investigators as "a model" for determining potential dangers at other expansion plants.

The St. Louis data from 1980 indicate that there were residents within six-tenths of a mile of the site and that exposure to those individuals was high, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But the EPA never told those residents of the potential danger. Nor did it tell city, county or state officials. There is no indication that the agency even notified Grace, although company documents show that the worldwide chemical and construction products company was well-aware of the contamination spewing from many of its facilities.
Schneider is well known for breaking the original story of the asbestos poisoning of Libby, Montana, published in the Seattle Post Intellegencer in 2000.

Schneider, by the way, was interviewed on the Diane Rehm show this morning which you can listen to here (Scroll down to January 29).

On the show, Schneider also talks about the Asbestos Compensation Bill that was brought up last year which he calls "frightening" because it covers only occupational exposure, not people exposed because the lived in the community where the asbestos-laden air blew through or families of workers who wore asbestos-contaminated clothes home.

Schneider has just come out with a book entitled An Air That Kills: How the Asbestos Poisoning of Libby, Montana, Uncovered a National Scandal.