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America's 10 worst man-made environmental disasters

Asbestos coats Libby, Montana.

Photo: NOAA

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Libby asbestos contamination

The W.R. Grace plant in Libby, Mont., spewed asbestos over the small town for decades, sickening more than 1,000 people and killing more than 200. Smoke from the factory coated the town in tremolite asbestos, a particularly toxic form linked to numerous diseases including mesothelioma.

Dust from the plant became part of the residents’ lives in 1919, and for years it covered lawns, dusted cars and drifted through the air. Tailings from the plant were used as fill for driveways, gardens, playgrounds and even the Libby junior high and high school tracks. Family members of mine workers were also exposed to asbestos that employees brought home on their work clothing.

The mine closed in 1990, and the company is now bankrupt after facing more than 270,000 asbestos-related lawsuits, but asbestos remains in Libby. No one knows exactly how many people have been affected, but a local health clinic that specializes in asbestos-related diseases says it has 1,400 patients and sees about 20 new patients each month.