WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday declared its first public health emergency, saying the federal government would funnel $6 million to provide medical care for people sickened by asbestos from a mine in Montana.
The declaration applies to the towns of Libby and Troy, where for decades workers dug for vermiculite, a mineral used in insulation. They were unknowingly poisoning themselves: The vermiculite was contaminated with a toxic form of asbestos, which workers carried home on their clothes.
The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that there are 500 people with asbestos-related illnesses such as lung cancer and asbestosis in the two towns, whose populations total about 3,900.
A spokeswoman for the department said 50 cases were diagnosed every year, including in workers' children and other relatives.
The department announced that it would grant $6 million to the health authority in Lincoln County, Mont., where the towns are located. The money is intended to be spent on residents' healthcare, officials said, paying for what insurance won't and covering the full medical tab for those without insurance.
"For way too long, many here in Washington have turned a blind eye to the needs of the residents in Libby," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. "Those days are over."
The EPA has had the power to declare a public health emergency since 1980. But agency officials said the law included no specific criteria about what constituted an emergency.