Libby residents faced imminent risk of exposure, says expert
According to government witness Richard Lemen, asbestos exposure posed an imminent risk to the residents of Libby, Mont. Because the mineral’s needle-like fibers build in a person’s lungs over time, Lemen said that the more asbestos one inhales over time, the more they are pushed toward disease, thus exposure poses an imminent threat.
“Asbestos related disease is dose-response related…that is, the higher the exposure, the higher the risk of getting a disease,” Lemen said. “The risk is how much a person takes into their body. As their body accumulates these indestructible fibers, that’s when we see disease.”
Lemen was allowed to testify Monday only as an expert epidemiologist after Judge Donald Molloy ruled that the prosecution could not also offer him as an expert industrial hygienist because they did not previously disclose him as one. Lemen served in the U.S. Army assessing health issues before going on to a decorated career in the Public Health Service, reaching the highest non-politically appointed position in the agency.
After retiring in 1996, Lemen went on to teach public health at Emory University and also work as an epidemiological consultant for legal matters. Lemen said that he charges $350.00 an hour for his services as a trial witness and has made $38,000 in the four years since the government began building their case against W.R. Grace.
Lemen said that his opinion on the threat posed to the residents of Libby was based on his career, education and also time spent reviewing thousands of articles on asbestos exposure. Lemen described an epidemiologist as a medical detective, looking into diseases and trying to determine their cause.
“We want to look at where the most concentrated exposure is happening first,” he said. “We go to areas where people have been found to be sick, and we try to determine why they’re sick.”
Because the community itself did not have a history of sampling and air testing, Lemen said that he looked to the exposure results from Grace facilities and testing conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency during their clean-up efforts in town. Lemen said it is common to look at a wide array of data when forming opinions on exposure because it can be difficult to get sampling results from individuals.
“You would almost have to follow an individual throughout their daily activities,” he said. “That’s something that’s very impractical to do.”
Lemen said that measurements from monitors connected to EPA workers digging up vermiculite during the clean up could be similar to the exposure that an average citizen might experience while working in their garden, landscaping or digging a well.
“You know that [the EPA's] digging into the material,” he said. “You can also have extreme types of disturbances in community activities.”
Kyle Lehman (posted 4:30)