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Does Libby’s bark bite?

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Usually, children are told not to climb trees for fear of broken limbs (the children’s and trees’). Children at schools in Libby are being told to stay away from the trees for fear of cancer.

That, for now, is the result of a Jan. 12 Community Advisory Group (CAG) meeting in Libby, during which Dr. Tony Ward, a research assistant professor at the University of Montana Center for Environmental Health Sciences, announced that bark samples taken from trees at the Libby Middle School turned up asbestos fibers, the culprit that caused mesothelioma in Libby residents.

Previous testing at areas closer to the sites of the W.R. Grace mines, whence the asbestos came, and along the transport corridor it traveled, showed that bark there was contaminated as well.

Ward told the community that it’s now unknown whether the fibers can be dislodged from the tree bark when disturbed, and it remains unknown whether there’s any safe threshold of exposure to asbestos fibers. In the meantime, Kirby Maki, superintendent of Libby schools and CAG member, is telling students at all Libby schools to stay away from the trees.

This isn’t the first time asbestos has been detected near Libby schools. In 2001, Libby’s high school and junior high school had to tear up their running tracks, which had been constructed of asbestos-containing vermiculite from the Grace mine.

But Maki, for one, personally believes Libby is safe, noting that he raised his family here and that he, his wife, and one of his children still live in the town.

“If I didn’t think it was safe for my family, I wouldn’t stay,” Maki says.

Maki says his willingness to stay in Libby, despite the fact that he’s told school children to avoid trees due to cancer concerns, is due in part to his confidence in Environmental Protection Agency efforts to ensure Libby’s safety.

“I feel good about their work,” he says. “We keep a close eye on them.”

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