Many towns across the country are struggling between bringing back large, public events to reignite economies stifled by the COVID-19 pandemic or continuing social distancing to stop the spread of the virus. But in Libby, Montana, where a disproportionate number of people suffer from asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma, the struggle is more pronounced because they are vulnerable to COVID-19 complications.

“We need people to come here and spend money and jolt the economy,” Frank Fahland told NPR. Fahland, like thousands of people in Libby and Lincoln County, has scarred lungs from breathing asbestos fibers that floated widely in the small town years ago thanks to a now-shuttered vermiculite mill.

The mine in Libby closed in 1990 but, by then, the damage had been done. Asbestos fibers were spewed all over town. While cleanup efforts continue, people exposed to the known carcinogen are still reporting asbestos-related disease decades later. It can take up to 50 years for some asbestos-related diseases to present. Mesothelioma, a form of cancer that develops in the lining of the lungs or abdomen, is particularly harsh, killing most people within 24 months of diagnosis.

Libby’s economy is dependent on tourism. Events like chainsaw competitions and rodeos bring in visitors from across the country and even the world. “The problem is,” Fahland said, “with that rodeo, there were faces in that crowd that have different license plates that came from different places that may have had issues.”

Another resident, Julie Kendall, has the same concerns. “These people that come to these events from out of town are going to our gas stations and our grocery stores. They could be exposing you right there.”

About 20,000 people live in Lincoln County and at least 400 have died from asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer. At least a tenth of the population suffers from an asbestos-related disease. Fahland, 61, is one of them.

“If it hadn’t been for COVID, my will would not be written. But it is now,” he says. “That gives you some idea how serious I take this.”

At least 170 Libby residents have been diagnosed with the COVID-19. A severe respiratory disease is a serious concern to anyone with breathing issues because “patients having an underlying lung disease would make recovery from COVID-19 more difficult,” said Miles Miller, a physician assistant at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease.

But the economy is struggling as well, and people are ready for life to get back to normal. But how much are they willing to sacrifice? “We’re already afraid here,” Kendall said. “So it’s kind of like one more shake of the dice. You can’t live every day in fear. But here we do.”

Mesothelioma litigation

Beasley Allen lawyers handle mesothelioma claims. They are looking at cases of industrial, occupational and secondary asbestos exposure resulting in lung cancer or mesothelioma as well as claims of asbestos-related talc products linked to mesothelioma. Charlie Stern in our Toxic Torts Section is the lead attorney working on these types of cases. As an experienced mesothelioma lawyer, Charlie is well equipped to tackle asbestos cases, which are highly complicated and require someone with a true understanding of the facts, medical issues, science and law. He is working together with Will Sutton, an experienced lawyer in our Toxic Torts Section. Contact us for more information.

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