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Lungs develop until a child reaches about age 18, so looking at the lungs of people who left town about that age and did not live there again can show how much damage occurs in childhood as compared to adulthood, Levin said. Scientists believe asbestos exposure in childhood is more dangerous because lungs are still developing, he said.
The research will also compare exposure of Libby asbestos to that of more common commercial forms and examine the presence of autoimmune disorders like lupus in people exposed to asbestos. The Center for Asbestos Related Disease is performing the $4.8 million epidemiology study.
Scientists will also examine quirks that sometimes show up in asbestos exposure. For example, a person who suffered only a secondary exposure to asbestos in Libby might see disease develop more quickly than a construction worker who worked directly with asbestos, and researchers hope the study will explain why the Libby asbestos is so aggressive.
To evaluate that, researchers will be comparing infected people in Libby with records of building trades workers who installed insulation in New York City, Levin said.
"We are sort of the petri dish of asbestos here in Libby," said Gayla Benefield, a member of the Class of 1961 who has spent the past two decades advocating for local residents.
Libby is a small town and many of the people who used to live here keep in touch with friends they left behind.
"It's a unique situation to have a group of people with a high degree of exposure to a toxin and to be able to bring them back," said Kimberly Rowse, clinical coordinator at the center. "They are willing to engage because this is their hometown."
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a branch of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is funding the project.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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