« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Asbestos beyond Libby city limits

  Since Andrew Schneider and David McCumber broke the story of Libby, Mont., in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, what began as local news about miners and their families dying of asbestosis has mushroomed into a national health disaster. Now, in their new book, An Air That Kills, they expose the asbestos industry’s deadly impact on the lives of Americans everywhere.

Schneider and McCumber track billions of pounds of asbestos-tainted vermiculite ore to more than 750 processing plants throughout North America, finding that up to 35 million homes are insulated with a product that both W.R. Grace and Co. and the United States government knew was hazardous.

Moreover, the World Trade Center contained 100 tons of Libby’s vermiculite — all of it sent airborne in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001. But the authors show how the White House, instead of warning New Yorkers of the health dangers, altered the Environmental Protection Agency’s statements concerning the health hazards at ground zero, and knowingly exposed thousands to poisonous air.

The two journalists contend that such deceit is symptomatic of a federal government deeply intertwined with the asbestos lobby. And while most Americans think asbestos is a problem of the past, it’s not: Thanks to an overturn of the ban on its production in 1991, crayons, garden products, kitty litter and brake parts all contain asbestos.

This book isn’t an easy read; it’s difficult to turn a page without feeling sick at the disregard for human life exhibited by businesspeople, government officials and medical professionals, who did nothing to ease Libby’s suffering, and who continue to expose the nation’s lungs to asbestos’ microscopic barbs of death. While a few noble doctors and government officials who fought for justice are given the credit they deserve, the villains in this sordid tale far outnumber the heroes.

An Air that Kills: How the Asbestos Poisoning of Libby, Montana, Uncovered a National Scandal
Andrew Schneider and David McCumber. 440 pages, hardcover: $25.95. Penguin, 2004.