COVID-19 Stalks A Montana Town Already Grappling With Asbestos Disease
In Libby, Mont., an estimated 1 in 10 have an asbestos-related illness, after decades of pollution from a now-shuttered mine. With lungs already scarred, many fear contracting the coronavirus.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The town of Libby, Mont., was living with an invisible enemy that attacks your lungs before the coronavirus moved in. For the past century, asbestos from a nearby mine has killed hundreds in this small town. And that experience is affecting how people in and around Libby are reacting now to the pandemic. Nate Hegyi from the Mountain West News Bureau reports.
NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: Frank Fahland has been slowly building his dream house near Libby, Mont., for the past 15 years.
FRANK FAHLAND: It's an Amish log home with a beautiful stain on it and the best back deck you've ever seen in your whole life.
HEGYI: It overlooks pine-forested foothills and an open meadow where deer and coyotes roam. And ever since the pandemic ramped up in mid-March, Fahland has been spending most days up here, away from people. That's because, like a lot of folks in Libby, he's especially vulnerable to COVID-19. His lungs are scarred from breathing in asbestos-laced dust from a nearby mine for decades.
FAHLAND: Feels like somebody is standing on your chest or almost like somebody stuffed a pillow down there in your lung.
HEGYI: Fahland is 61 years old, but even climbing up a small hill near his house is hard.
(SOUNDBITE OF COUGHING)
HEGYI: He reaches for his inhaler.
FAHLAND: Magic stuff - albuterol. Pound that stuff down.
HEGYI: To avoid the coronavirus, Fahland is staying away from town. He hasn't visited his son and granddaughter in months. And...
FAHLAND: If it hadn't been for COVID, my will would not be written. But it is now. And it's filed in the courthouse, and the whole thing's all done. That gives you some idea how seriously I take this.
HEGYI: A few miles away from Fahland's dream house, there's a special clinic in downtown Libby that treats patients with asbestos-related disease. Miles Miller is a physician assistant there.
MILES MILLER: Our patients having an underlying lung disease would make recovery from COVID-19 more difficult.
HEGYI: Miller has lived in Libby, Mont., since 1990. That was the year the vermiculite mine that caused this public health disaster finally closed down. And before that, Miller says, the mine spewed asbestos-laden dust throughout Libby constantly.
MILLER: During the heyday, I don't think you could shop for groceries in this town without breathing some of the dust.
HEGYI: It can take decades for someone to develop health problems from breathing in that dust. Miller says that about 1 in 10 residents in the Libby area are currently diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease. Some have scarred and weakened lungs like Fahland. Others have various cancers. And as fall begins, coronavirus cases have been skyrocketing throughout Montana. Now, many people in Libby are trying to follow the various restrictions, wearing masks and social distancing. But for a few, the town's history with the mine and the government's initial inaction have made them wary of authority.
DOUG SHAW: They profiteered off our precious lives and souls.
HEGYI: That's Doug Shaw. His lungs are scarred from asbestos. And during our conversation, he rails against the state government and the mine's owner, W.R. Grace and Company, for covering up the contamination here for decades.
SHAW: I do not like what they did to us here and allowed to be done to us.
HEGYI: He calls it murder. In response, the mining company says it's already set up a generous financial relief fund for Libby residents with asbestos-related diseases. But for Shaw, it's all fueled a distrust of authority that's bled into his reaction to COVID-19. He questions the science, and he's frustrated by the restrictions.
SHAW: Nobody has to live like this. We need to get back to work.
HEGYI: That sentiment runs strong throughout northwest Montana. It's a conservative region with a strong libertarian streak. And Libby's economy relies on tourism. And this has led to a paradox. On one hand, local officials in the community have largely accepted public health guidelines. But on the other, the county allowed some big public events to go forward, like a rodeo and an international chainsaw competition. Julie Kendall isn't pleased about that.
JULIE KENDALL: These people that come to these events from out of town are going to our gas stations, our grocery stores. And they could be exposing you right there.
HEGYI: She's a phlebotomist at the local hospital, and she was diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease a couple months ago. She figures she got it as a kid from the piles of mine waste next to the local swimming pool. And Kendall sees parallels between the novel coronavirus and asbestos.
KENDALL: It's unseen. You don't see it. You can be doing the innocentest (ph) thing, and it could still get you.
HEGYI: But Kendall also believes those parallels have given folks like her a leading edge on dealing with this pandemic because they've been here before.
KENDALL: We're already afraid here, so it's kind of like one more shake of the dice. I don't know how else to say that. You can't live every day in fear, but here we do.
HEGYI: For NPR News, I'm Nate Hegyi in Libby, Mont.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That story comes from a collaboration of the Mountain West News Bureau and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.