FROM THE VICE PRESIDENT
Campus research efforts now expend more than $67 million annually.
A rundown of science stories during the past year
THE OUTER LIMITS
New University research center studies the edge of human endurance.
THE ROOTS OF SOCIAL INEQUALITY
Digs in British Columbia offer a groundbreaking view of hunter-gatherer societies.
Research reveals another public health threat from asbestos contamination.
A young UM researcher studies flying rhinoceros beetles in Taiwan.
The Milltown Dam removal allows trapped sediments to travel.
How do prey species react when predators are returned to ecosystems.
THE NEW NOTE-TAKING
UM develops new software to aid college students.
A UM legal scholar reveals Constitution's original intent.
FLIP THROUGH CURRENT ISSUE
Cover: Jeff Cincoski, a triathlete and UM employee, puts a research bike through its paces in a 100-degree, temperature-controlled room at the Montana Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism.
is published annually by The University of Montana Office of the Vice President
for Research and Development and University Relations. It is printed by UM Printing
& Graphic Services.
Daniel J. Dwyer. MANAGING EDITOR: Cary
Shimek. GRAPHIC DESIGNER: Neil Wiegert. PHOTOGRAPHER: Todd Goodrich. CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Brianne Burrowes,
Brenda Day, Judy Fredenberg, Rita Munzenrider, Jennifer Sauer, Allison Squires and Patia Stephens. WEB DESIGN: Cary Shimek. EDITORIAL OFFICE: University Relations, Brantly Hall 330, Missoula,
MT 59812, 406-243-5914. MANAGEMENT: Judy
Fredenberg, Office of the Vice President for Research and Development, 116
Main Hall, Missoula, MT 59812, 406-243-6670.
Research reveals another public health threat from asbestos
By Cary Shimek
It can be eerie at a Superfund site.
|UM researcher Tony Ward demonstrates how to take a bark sample to search for asbestos.
That point was driven home for UM scientist Tony Ward in 2006 while working on forested land surrounding the closed W.R. Grace vermiculite mine five miles east of Libby. It was one of the hottest days of summer, and Ward – along with research partners Julie Hart and Terry Spear from UM’s Montana Tech – was dressed head to toe in a white hazardous material suit with little ventilation.
A guard hired by the Environmental Protection Agency unlocked the gate blocking Rainy Creek Road to admit the scientists to the property, and they drove up the blacktop toward the summit of Vermiculite Mountain, where the mine is located. After a few miles the trio parked and – looking a bit like escapees from the Apollo Program – began to cut and stack firewood in the hot sun.
“There is nobody there, and it’s just very strange,” Ward says. “You look out, and it looks like a regular Montana forest. But it’s actually loaded with asbestos fibers everywhere. It’s very odd being up there, because you can’t see the asbestos.
“It all looks so normal.”
The mine was founded in the 1920s after it was discovered that vermiculite “popped” when heated, creating a material with air pockets suitable for insulating buildings and conditioning soil. The mine boosted the economy of Libby for 70 years and at one time produced more than 80 percent of the world’s vermiculite.
However, this mineral wealth was laced with a particularly nasty form of asbestos that breaks down into needlelike fragments that can become airborne and inhaled by people, leading to diseases such as lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma. The mine became a volcano of pollution amid the scenic landscape, sickening hundreds of miners, their family members and others. More than 200 deaths in the area have been attributed to mine activities, and in June 2009 the EPA announced that the Libby asbestos site constituted the nation’s first Public Health Emergency.
Besides the human toll, the mine dusted the surrounding forest during its decades of operation, and the UM researchers wanted to know if the trees were safe to harvest – especially in an area where many people depend on wood as their sole source of heat in the winter.
Ward says working in those hazmat suits that day made the forest seem like the surface of the sun.
“It was the most god-awful thing you can imagine, being in those sweat suits,” he says. “We all developed severe headaches, and I think we only lasted an hour before we almost had heatstroke. We had the chain saws out and we were working, and nobody wanted to be the first to say ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’ But eventually we looked at one another and admitted it wasn’t working.”
So they retreated down the mountain, only to return that fall – after a few snows – to learn what secrets the trees would tell.
The researchers originally wanted to prove the trees around the mine were clean. In collaboration with Ward, Hart and Spear first collected tree-bark samples there in November 2004 as part of a commercial logging study.
“Those trees are like stands of money out there, so we wanted to figure a way to harvest them in the contaminated areas as a source of income for the Libby community,” says Ward, a research assistant professor in UM’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences. “We were thinking that tree harvesting should be fine. Our thought was that most of the contamination at the Superfund site would be in the ground. Our hypothesis was that when you cut and drag a tree through contaminated soil, that’s when the tree could get dirty.”
They collected 10-centimeter-square chunks of bark from standing trees at three sites: at the edge of the mine, at a midpoint along Rainy Creek Road and near the gated entrance to the property. Ward then badgered Jim Webber, one of the world’s leading asbestos experts with the Wadsworth Center of the New York State Department of Health, to analyze the bark samples. (“I cornered him at a conference, and he eventually agreed to do it,” Ward says.)
Webber developed a bark test in which the sample was “ashed” so that all the wood was burned away, leaving only the asbestos fibers, which, of course, are highly heat resistant. These fibers were then placed on a filter-like grid to help with counting and viewed under a transmission electron microscope.
There never had been a tree-bark standard for asbestos before. However, one industrial hygiene textbook says anything over 100,000 fibers per square centimeter of a clean, smooth surface area should be considered contaminated.
Bark is definitely not smooth and clean, and its wrinkled surface presents a much larger surface area, so it can’t be directly compared to a flat surface. But a lodgepole pine adjacent to the mine offered 260 million fibers per cm2 of bark. A similar tree along Rainy Creek Road had 110 million fibers per cm2, and one near the gated entrance miles from the mine still had 54 million fibers per cm2.
“We were pretty astounded by the results,” Ward says. “It turns out these trees are like asbestos dust mops.”
Ward returned to Libby in June 2005 to sample the bark of trees right in town. The results: Asa Wood Elementary School had no fibers detected, but both the Firemen’s Public Park and Libby Middle School had 250,000 fibers per cm2, and the railroad – gateway for shipping the tainted vermiculite around the nation and world – had 5.8 million fibers per cm2.
How far from the mine does the tree bark contamination extend? Ward suggested a program in which bark was sampled at regular intervals in eight directions leading from the mine, and the EPA conducted the program in May 2008. It found asbestos-laden trees more than eight miles from the mine. The only direction where “non-detects” became evident before sampling ended was north, after about five miles. To the east, contaminated trees were found miles away on the far side of sizable Lake Koocanusa. To the west, sampling stopped at the edge of Libby, where contaminated samples were found.
After sampling confirmed the trees were contaminated, the researchers decided to focus on the implications that might directly affect members of the community. For instance, what happens when you harvest the wood? (This was an important question, as Libby residents are heavily dependent on woodstoves for residential home heating throughout the cold winter months.) They did a study on that in 2006 – the same research in which summer heat forced them from the mountain. The scientists used chain saws and cut and stacked wood. Afterward, they took wipe samples from their hazmat suits. In the summer, some wipes produced a contamination level of more than 100,000 fibers per cm2. When they returned later that year in October, their highest wipe samples were about 36,000 fibers per cm2.
“Having that heat chase us from the mountain actually turned out to be a good thing, because it inadvertently gave us a seasonal comparison,” Ward says. “We learned that you get a lot more asbestos on your suits – or your clothes – when it’s hot and very dry versus when it’s cooler and wetter.”
They determined that it can be harmful to harvest the wood, so then what happens when you burn it? In 2007 the trio burned contaminated wood as part of a combustion study. It was another surreal scene at the Superfund site as they set up brand-new woodstoves on paved Rainy Creek Road in their hazmat suits.
“We burned it just like someone would in their home,” Ward says. Ash samples were collected, and wipe samples were taken within the ductwork. “We learned that asbestos fibers are liberated into the air when asbestos-contaminated wood is burned, but most of the fibers stay inside the ash. So that leads to another study: What happens when you sweep out contaminated ash within the home? We haven’t done that one yet.”
Ward says this work is important because the EPA has spent millions of dollars cleaning asbestos contamination in Libby structures. He worries that area homeowners inadvertently might undo this work by burning tainted wood.
While working at the Superfund site, the scientists learned that the U.S. Forest Service was doing a lot of work in an area east of the mine. So they shared their initial results with the agency and also collected bark samples.
“They were doing work there unprotected in an area that turned out to have significant asbestos in the trees,” Ward says. “After we provided our information to them, they don’t go up there anymore unless they are in full personal protective equipment. So we helped prevent exposures to Forest Service workers up there.”
The Forest Service also produced an informational brochure for people working and recreating on federal land that warns of asbestos detected in the soil, tree bark and duff surrounding the mine. In addition, in February 2009 the agency moved back the boundary surrounding the Libby Superfund Site that it will allow firefighters to cross to battle blazes. (The agency can still use aircraft to fight fires there.)
What would happen if a big wildfire roared to life among the contaminated trees surrounding the mine, liberating all those asbestos fibers?
“It could be bad news,” Ward admits.
The contamination problem goes far beyond Libby, and the researchers have noticed that individual cases of asbestos-caused mesothelioma in Montana cluster around railways. Now they are collecting bark samples along railroad corridors, looking for the telltale fibers. They also intend to sample the bark near the urban processing facilities across the nation where Libby’s vermiculite was shipped.
“We hope to discover currently unknown contaminated areas using the new bark procedure,” Ward says.
As for the tainted trees near Libby, he suspects the contamination is so widespread around the mine that they might be impossible to cleanse.
“We just have to figure out a way to protect those folks who live there,” Ward says. “If you can give them alternative places to get clean firewood, then you eliminate them getting contaminated while harvesting firewood and burning it. We just want to prevent future exposures.”
For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Researchers Terry Spear (left) and Tony Ward harvest firewood at the Superfund site and later found substantial asbestos fibers on their hazmat suits.
|Asbestos breaks down into needle-like fragments that can become airborne and inhaled by people, leading to a variety of diseases.
|UM researcher Tony Ward