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  • Low Levels of Libby Asbestos Exposure Linked to Lung Abnormalities

    Long-Term Changes Seen at Relatively Low Exposure Levels

    People exposed to asbestos from mining in Libby, Mont., show long-term changes in lung imaging and function tests, even with relatively low asbestos exposure, reports a study in the January Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

    Thirty years after the Libby mine was shut down, abnormalities are found on chest computed tomography (CT) scans and lung function tests in more than half of workers exposed to Libby amphibole asbestos (LAA). "[T]hese changes occur at substantially lower cumulative fiber exposure levels than those commonly associated with commercial asbestos," write Dr. James E. Lockey of the University of Cincinnati and colleagues. The study was sponsored by the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry.

    The researchers followed up 431 living workers, from an original group of 513 LAA-exposed workers first studied in 1980. The workers were exposed to a particularly hazardous form of asbestos from contaminated vermiculite that had been mined in Libby for decades.

    Of 191 workers with available CT scans, 53 percent had asbestos-related changes of the tissue lining the lungs (pleura), while 13 percent had changes of the lung substance (parenchyma). Greater involvement on imaging scans was related to greater average reductions in lung function (forced vital capacity): up to 18 percent for those with extensive pleural and/or parenchymal changes.

    The CT scan abnormalities were present even in workers with lower levels of estimated lifetime exposure to LAA — about three to ten times below current standards for commercial asbestos exposure. The asbestos-related lung abnormalities "can be particularly relevant when potentially combined with other respiratory [diseases] that can occur over a person’s lifetime that can impact lung function," Dr. Lockey and co-authors conclude.

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    Citation — Lockey JE, Dunning K, Hilbert TJ, et al. HRCT/CT and associated spirometric effects of low Libby amphibole asbestos exposure. J Occup Environ Med. 2015;57(1):6-13.

    About the Author — Dr. Lockey may be contacted for interviews at james.lockey@uc.edu.

    About ACOEM — ACOEM (www.acoem.org), an international society of 4,500 occupational physicians and other health care professionals, provides leadership to promote optimal health and safety of workers, workplaces, and environments.

    About the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine — JOEM (www.joem.org) is the official journal of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Edited to serve as a guide for physicians, nurses, and researchers, the clinically oriented research articles are an excellent source for new ideas, concepts, techniques, and procedures that can be readily applied in the industrial or commercial employment setting.