Zonolite Brand Vermiculite Asbestos Insulation

Zonolite brand vermiculite Insulation was widely used in the 1950's as attic insulation. I know because a house I wired in 1957 was insulated with this material. I installed the Zonolite vermiculite insulation myself, without knowledge that it was dangerous! Now I find out that material could be responsible now, years later, for lung problems.

As an electrician I have visited hundreds, perhaps thousands of attics. I wonder how many of them also contained this dangerous insulation. Here are details about this dangerous material which will be of interest to you if you visit attics from that era.

Photograph shows some typical pieces of vermiculite insulation that are about the size of a pencil eraser. Vermiculite Consumer Products


Vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral compound composed of shiny flakes, resembling mica. When heated to a high temperature, flakes of vermiculite expand as much as 8-30 times their original size. Historically, much of the world's supply of vermiculite came from a mine near Libby, Montana. The Libby mine also had a natural deposit of asbestos, and the vermiculite from Libby is contaminated with asbestos. The information below describes possible health hazards posed by products made from asbestos-contaminated vermiculite.

How does asbestos cause health problems?

Asbestos can cause health problems when it is breathed into the lungs. If products containing asbestos are disturbed, thin, lightweight asbestos fibers are released into the air. Persons breathing the air may breathe in asbestos fibers. Continued exposure increases the amount of fibers that remain in the lung. Fibers embedded in lung tissue over time may result in lung diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothelioma.

What products were made with vermiculite from the mine in Libby?

Much of the Libby vermiculite was used to produce attic insulation products, often sold under the brand name Zonolite . Vermiculite was commonly sold in gardening and hardware stores. It was used as a soil amendment (conditioner to improve soil quality), fertilizer carrier, and it was an ingredient in many potting soil mixes. Vermiculite was also used in fireproofing materials, gypsum wallboard, and as a lightweight aggregate in construction materials.


How can I tell if my insulation is made from vermiculite?

Look at the insulation in your attic without disturbing it. Expanded vermiculite is shaped like a small nugget and varies in color from silver-gold to gray-brown. The following photograph shows some typical pieces of vermiculite insulation.


How can I tell if my vermiculite insulation contains asbestos?

The majority of all vermiculite insulation produced before 1990 used contaminated vermiculite from Libby. Asbestos fibers in vermiculite are too small to be seen by the naked eye. Only a trained technician using a microscope can see asbestos fibers. However, due to limitations in the methods even trained technicians cannot always determine if all vermiculite contains asbestos. Therefore, to be safe, you should assume that vermiculite insulation may be contaminated with asbestos.

Is my family at risk of exposure if we have renovated, removed, or otherwise disturbed asbestos-contaminated insulation?

If you removed or disturbed the insulation, it is possible that you inhaled some asbestos fibers. Also the disturbance may have resulted in the fibers being deposited into other areas of the building. Disease symptoms may take several years to develop following exposure. If you are concerned about possible exposure, consult a physician who specializes in lung diseases (pulmonologist).

I have insulation that contains asbestos in my attic. What should I do to reduce my exposure?

Make every effort not to disturb the insulation. For asbestos to present a problem for the homeowner, it must be disturbed so that tiny fibers are released into the air. Do not store items in the attic if retrieving the items will disturb the insulation.

If you must perform activities that may disturb the insulation, leave the attic immediately after the disturbance. While any disturbance has the potential to release asbestos fibers into the air, limiting the number of trips and shortening the length of those trips will reduce exposure. A dust mask will not protect you from inhaling asbestos fibers.

If I want to remove the insulation in the attic what should I do?

A trained and certified asbestos contractor should replace insulation containing asbestos with different insulation.

Will the insulation contaminate the rest of my house?

It is possible that insulation can fall through cracks in the ceiling, walls, or around light fixtures to contaminate the house. You can reduce the chances of this happening by sealing cracks or holes that insulation could fall through. In addition, some air ventilation systems may disturb the insulation. If you think that fibers are getting into your living space, then you may want to hire an accredited asbestos inspector to perform air monitoring for asbestos fibers.

Do I have to inform potential buyers of the asbestos if I sell my house?

Some states require that owners disclose any knowledge of asbestos in the house. Check with a realtor about disclosure requirements in your area.

What should I do if I want to remodel or remove the insulation?

We strongly recommend that you hire a trained and certified asbestos contractor to remove the insulation using a "negative pressure enclosure" technique. This technique prevents asbestos fibers from escaping the attic into the rest of the house. After the insulation is removed and the project is completed, the contractor should monitor the air to see if the indoor air meets acceptable standards. Do not attempt to remove the insulation yourself. You could spread asbestos fibers throughout the house, putting you and your family at risk of inhaling asbestos fibers.

My insulation is more than 15 years old. Is it possible that the asbestos in it could still pose a health hazard?

If asbestos was in the insulation when it was installed, it is still there. If the insulation is disturbed, asbestos fibers may be released into the air. Inhalation of these fibers would be a concern. If this is the case, you may want to consider either containing or removing the insulation.

Will I become ill if I have personally removed or handled insulation that contained asbestos?

Exposure to asbestos increases your risk of developing lung disease. That risk is made worse by smoking. In general, the greater the exposure to asbestos, the greater the chance of developing harmful health effects. If you are concerned that you may have been exposed to asbestos, you may want to consult a physician who specializes in lung disease.

Vermiculite Garden Products

Is there asbestos in the vermiculite sold for gardening uses?

Not all vermiculite garden products contain asbestos, but an EPA study showed that some contain low levels of asbestos. Asbestos was found primarily in the unmixed vermiculite product sold separately as a soil amendment. However, some was found in premixed potting soils. Because the Libby mine closed in 1990, newer products are not expected to contain significant amounts of asbestos. It is possible, however, that some older products could still be on store shelves.

What precautions should I take?

Although the health risk to home gardeners is low, the following precautions are suggested:

Use premixed potting soil because it contains more moisture and less vermiculite and therefore reduces the amount of dust that might contain asbestos.

Keep vermiculite moist while using it to minimize dust and the possibility of releasing asbestos fibers into the air.

Handle the material outdoors or in a well-ventilated area.

Avoid bringing dust into the house on clothing or shoes.

Try alternatives to vermiculite, such as peat moss, sawdust, perlite, or bark.

For more information, contact ATSDR at: 1-888-422-8737 or e-mail: atsdric@cdc.gov (public inquiries)

This ATSDR document is available in Acrobat .pdf format. Click Here


Additional Information from other federal agencies:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agencyexit image

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Healthexit image


(Washington, D.C.) -- Today Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) spoke on the Senate floor about the public health dangers of asbestos-tainted insulation and continued to seek answers to why the White House prevented EPA from telling the American people about this danger.

There are between 15 - 35 million homes, schools and businesses in America that still contain asbestos-tainted insulation. Last year, the EPA developed a plan to warn homeowners of this silent danger. But an investigative report found that EPA never followed through because the White House OMB intervened to kill the plan.

For more information about asbestos, including the investigative report, and Sen. Murray's legislation to ban asbestos in America, go to http://murray.senate.gov/asbestos

Senator Murray's remarks follow:

Ms. MURRAY. Mr. President I rise today to share a story with my colleagues. It's a true story about a family who happened to live in a neighborhood in Spokane, Washington. They could have easily been in Memphis or Minneapolis or Midland as well. But they lived in my state, in Spokane, a typical American city in Eastern Washington.

Mr. President, as part of realizing their American dream, Ralph Busch and his wife Donna bought a house. They were newlyweds, and this was the home they bought after getting married. They soon discovered that it needed roof repairs, and so Ralph spent quite a bit of time in the attic - working on his roof. The following year they found they had to renovate an addition that was put on the house in the 1950s.

They both had full-time jobs, so they spent many nights and weekends working on their home. They knocked down walls and tore through the old insulation, drywall and wood. They sanded and hammered and spent two entire years fixing up the place.

One morning, Ralph was reading the newspaper. Just by chance, he came across a story about a company that manufactured a household insulation called Zonolite. This insulation, he read, was tainted with deadly asbestos. Ralph suddenly realized that Zonolite was in his home. Ralph Busch was stunned as it dawned on him. He had just spent two years in his own home handling Zonolite insulation and he and his wife may have unknowingly been exposed to deadly asbestos.

What would happen from his and his wife's exposure? How come no one had told him he had asbestos in his attic? The Zonolite insulation was a product from the little town of Libby, Montana. It was produced by the W.R. Grace Company.

W.R. Grace mined vermiculite from the hillside near Libby. The company turned the ore into insulation known as Zonolite by heating vermiculite to expand it into light granules. The process was similar to popping popcorn. After sorting the popped vermiculite, W.R. Grace poured it into bags and sold it to use as insulation. The company marketed Zonolite as "perfectly safe"…

But laced throughout the vermiculite in the ground near Libby, another mineral was present: asbestos. W.R. Grace's process to make Zonolite and other products could not, and did not, remove all the asbestos from the end product. Zonolite insulation contains between .5 percent and 8 percent asbestos.

The community of Libby has suffered immensely from decades of mining the deadly vermiculite ore used to make Zonolite insulation and other consumer products. At least 200 men and women from Libby have died from diseases caused by exposure to asbestos-tainted vermiculite, and hundreds more people from the town are sick.

When inhaled, asbestos can cause deadly diseases – from asbestosis to mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the lining of the lung that is almost always fatal. In fact, mesothelioma kills at least 2,000 people each year and is caused only by asbestos.

The diseases induced by exposure to asbestos result in horrible deaths and they are nearly always fatal. Treatment is harsh and debilitating. These diseases can take years to strike. The late Congressman Bruce Vento and the father of the modern Navy, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, both died from asbestos they had been exposed to years earlier.

The asbestos-tainted insulation manufactured by the W.R. Grace Company was used in homes throughout the country for decades. Vermiculite from Libby first started being sold commercially in 1921, and W.R. Grace bought the mine in 1963. Reviews of invoices indicate that more than 6 million tons of Libby ore was shipped to hundreds of sites nationwide for processing over the decades. This chart behind me shows more than 300 sites across the nation, where ore was processed, in many cases to make Zonolite insulation.

In internal memos and e-mails, the Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that as many as 35 million homes, schools and businesses may still contain this insulation. Moreover, W.R. Grace knew the Libby mine contained asbestos when the company purchased it in 1963. But Grace made millions of tons of Zonolite anyway and unabashedly marketed it as "safe."

If the manufacturer of this insulation knew it was contaminated with asbestos, why didn't it or the federal government make sure that Ralph Busch and millions of others across the country knew to leave it alone? The answer to the first question is that W.R. Grace still claims its product isn't harmful. The answer to the second question is more complicated.

According to published reports and internal EPA documents, the EPA was preparing to tell the American people about the dangers of Zonolite insulation. But it didn't happen. An investigation by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Andrew Schneider found that last spring while it was addressing the public health crisis in Libby, Montana, the EPA was preparing to tell the American people about the dangers of Zonolite insulation in millions of homes across this country.

But first, EPA had to deal with Libby. EPA decided it needed to minimize the exposure of Libby residents to asbestos-contaminated vermiculite, and the agency drafted a press release announcing its decision. This document said that EPA – "... will spend $34 million to remove dangerous asbestos-contaminated vermiculite insulation from 70 percent of residential and commercial buildings in Libby."

I am glad that EPA has taken aggressive steps to protect people in that small Montana town. Senator Baucus deserves tremendous credit for the work he has done to bring federal resources to Montana to help people in Libby. And EPA deserves credit for doing the right thing, and going in to remove the insulation from Libby.

But what about the rest of the country? What about the millions of other homes with Zonolite insulation? Since EPA decided to help Libby, the agency anticipated the logical follow-up question of what about the millions of homes nationwide that contain the same Zonolite insulation as homes in Libby.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the EPA had drafted news releases, and drawn up lists of public officials to notify. The agency was preparing to embark on an outreach and education campaign to let people know about this hazard in their homes. But what stopped EPA from following through with its warning?

It may have been the same person or people who blocked another government health agency from warning workers about asbestos exposure. Last April, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) was preparing to release new guidance for workers who come into contact with insulation in the course of their daily work.

NIOSH was preparing to alert workers - such as electricians, plumbers and maintenance workers - about how they can better protect themselves from exposure to asbestos in Zonolite insulation. These materials were prepared last April, but they still have not been released.

Let me read from a "Pre-Decisional Draft" of a NIOSH Fact Sheet dated April 11, 2002. I ask that it be printed in the record in its entirity. NIOSH recommended that workers:

"…should isolate the work area from other areas in order to avoid spreading fibers, use local exhaust ventilation to reduce dust exposures, and use appropriate respiratory protection. If the employer or worker is concerned about potential exposure, and if at all possible, the vermiculite should not be disturbed."

But, astonishingly, this guidance was never released. How many of the construction workers, maintenance people, electricians, plumbers and homeowners across the country know they should "avoid spreading fibers, use local exhaust ventilation or appropriate respiratory protection?"

I suspect that like Mr. Ralph Busch, thousands of people across the U.S. are not taking these important precautions because they are simply unaware of the danger. I would like to read to my colleagues another section from the never-released NIOSH Fact Sheet. This was in response to the question about how workers can know if the vermiculite they have is contaminated with asbestos. It says,

"As a rule, we believe that any vermiculite that originated in Libby, Montana, before 1990 should be regarded as potentially contaminated. It is known that vermiculite from Libby was sold as attic insulation under the product name Zonolite Attic Insulation and that this product is still in homes throughout the United States."

But especially interesting is the next section, which is in parentheses as a comment by the author:

"W.R. Grace estimates several million homes contain 'vermiculite attic insulation,' which is most likely very conservative. If we don't wish to provide any indication of the magnitude of the potential VAI (or vermiculite attic insulation) exposure in number of homes, we should be clear about the potential situation to provide a more accurate picture and warning."

I must ask my colleagues, why wouldn't NIOSH or others in the Administration -- when they are taking great pains to do the job in right in Libby -- want to share with workers and the public an indication of the magnitude of the number of homes with asbestos-tainted vermiculite? Isn't it our government's job to protect people from risks associated with hazardous substances such as asbestos? Don't we need to know the scope of the problem in order to help gauge the extent of the potential risks? Why aren't we warning workers and giving them the new guidance that has already been drafted by NIOSH?

Interestingly enough, on April 10, 2002, the day before the date on this NIOSH Fact Sheet, EPA received a letter from W.R. Grace defending their harmful product. The letter read, "Zonolite Attic Insulation (ZAI) has been insulating homes for over 60 years and there is no credible reason to believe that ZAI has ever caused an asbestos-related disease in anyone who has used it in his/her home."

How then does Grace explain the fact that the company has settled at least 25 bodily injury claims caused by exposure to Zonolite? Make no mistake. W.R. Grace is a company with one of the worst public health and environmental records in America.

I draw my colleagues' attention to a 1998 article by Dr. David Egilman, Wes Wallace and Candace Hom published in the journal Accountability in Research entitled "Corporate Corruption of Medical Literature: Asbestos Studies Concealed by W.R. Grace & Co." I will read briefly from the abstract of this article:

"In 1963, W.R. Grace acquired the mine (in Libby) and employee health problems at the mine became known to W.R. Grace executives and to Grace's insurance company, Maryland Casualty. In 1976, in response to tighter federal regulation of asbestos and asbestos-containing products, W.R. Grace funded an animal study of tremolite toxicity. They hoped to prove that tremolite did not cause mesothelioma, the cancer uniquely associated with asbestos exposure. However, the study showed that tremolite did cause mesothelioma. W.R. Grace never disclosed the results of this animal study, nor did they disclose their knowledge of lung disease in the Libby workers, either to the workers themselves or to regulatory agencies. These actions were intentional, and were motivated by Grace's conscious decision to prioritize corporate profit over human health."

Given the facts that W.R. Grace has knowingly manufactured and sold an asbestos-tainted product, has suppressed research findings showing that tremolite asbestos causes cancer, and has denied that their product is potentially dangerous, the company is woefully lacking for credibility.

Which brings us to our question: If EPA was planning to warn the American public about the dangers of Zonolite insulation, what stopped EPA from following through with its plan? Why aren't we warning homeowners nationwide about Zonolite insulation? Why aren't we warning workers and giving them new safety guidelines?

Well, M. President, the answers might lie, not with the EPA, but with the White House Office of Management and Budget, OMB. An internal e-mail from John F. Wood, the Deputy General Counsel at OMB, to staff at EPA contained details about finalizing the Action Memo for Libby. Also copied on the e-mail were OMB Deputy Director Nancy Dorn and Associate Director of Natural Resources Programs Marcus Peacock. Here's what OMB's lawyer wrote to EPA, and I ask unanimous consent that this e-mail be printed in the record:

"Thank you for your efforts to alleviate my concerns. Here are just a few edits, which are necessary to avoid the problems we discussed earlier. Please be sure to observe the deletion of the citation of Sect. 104 (a) (4)."

What is Section 104(a)(4)...? It is a clause in the Superfund law, which enables the EPA to declare a public health emergency. And why did OMB tell the EPA to "delete the citation" to Section 104 (a) (4)…? We don't know for sure, but if EPA had issued the public health emergency for Libby under Superfund, then the agency would have had to answer questions about asbestos-tainted insulation from every other homeowner in the country. And here is what the St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigation concluded:

"The Environmental Protection Agency was on the verge of warning millions of Americans that their attics and walls might contain asbestos-contaminated insulation. But, at the last minute, the White House intervened, and the warning has never been issued."

The Post-Dispatch got reaction from an EPA staffer about OMB's intervention:

"It was like a gut shot," said one of those senior staffers involved in the decision. "It wasn't like they ordered us not to make the declaration, they just really, really strongly suggested against it. Really strongly. There was no choice left."

I ask unanimous consent that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch article be printed in the record.

Mr. President, because of OMB's involvement, EPA never conducted the planned outreach to warn people about Zonolite. NIOSH's guidance to workers about how to protect themselves was never finalized. In response to these shocking reports, on January 3, 2003, I wrote to EPA Administrator Whitman and OMB Director Daniels to get some answers. Mr. Daniels has not yet responded to the allegations that his office blocked the announcement. Ms. Whitman wrote that she is responding on behalf of OMB. I can only ascribe this to OMB's desire to remain unaccountable and to hide the role it played in these decisions.

Ms. Whitman's response was woefully inadequate. She failed to explain the nature or the substance of OMB's involvement. She also wrote that it is not possible to know how many homes contain vermiculite insulation even though her own agency has estimated it may be between 15 and 35 million homes, schools and businesses. I ask unanimous consent that Administrator Whitman's letter be printed in the record.

Mr. President, my colleagues may be curious about why I am so interested in EPA's decisions regarding vermiculite from Libby. This issue is important to me because residents in my state are being exposed to asbestos from Zonolite. And, Mr. President, constituents in your state and every other state in America may also have this insulation. I am deeply concerned that most people with Zonolite in their homes are completely unaware of this problem.

I am afraid most will not learn of it until they have already been exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos. And I am most concerned that this administration may be stifling EPA's efforts to warn homeowners, consumers, and workers because of pressure from W.R. Grace. And I must remind my colleagues: there is no safe known level of exposure to asbestos. Deadly diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma can develop decades after just brief exposures to high concentrations of asbestos.

Ultimately, I believe Administrator Whitman wanted to do the right thing by warning homeowners nationwide to be careful if they have Zonolite in their homes when the agency began removing Zonolite from homes in Libby, Montana. But she was stopped. The reasons may never be known – the excuse may be buried in "executive privilege."

So, where do we go from here? First, I hope my colleagues will support efforts to get to the bottom of what stopped the EPA from warning the public. We have to increase pressure on EPA, NIOSH, and other public health agencies to raise public awareness about Zonolite.

Second, I hope my colleagues will support legislation to ban asbestos in America and to warn people about the potential dangers posed by Zonolite insulation. I appreciate the support for this legislation I have received from Senators Baucus, Cantwell, Dayton and our late colleague, Senator Wellstone, who were original cosponsors.

I have been working to raise awareness about the current dangers of asbestos for over two years. In July of 2001, I chaired a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on asbestos and workplace safety. In June of 2002, two days after introducing the Ban Asbestos in America Act, I testified at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on Libby held by Senator Baucus.

My colleagues may wonder whatever happened to Ralph Busch and his wife Donna. After reading about Zonolite in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Mr. Busch went to get the asbestos removed from his home. He learned it would cost $32,000 to do so. When he tried to secure compensation from his homeowners insurance to pay to clean up the contamination, his insurance company rejected the claim. He got nowhere with the company that had inspected the home before he purchased it. They hadn't known about Zonolite, either.

When he talked to his realtor about trying to sell his house, Mr. Busch's realtor emphasized that Mr. Busch and his wife would be responsible under the law for disclosing the presence of Zonolite to any potential buyer. According to Mr. Busch, even his realtor and I quote, "...expressed apprehension over entering the house saying he has young children and was fearful of asbestos exposure without a proper respirator... ...this about a house we were living in every day."

In the end, having exhausted all of his options, Ralph Busch and his wife Donna sacrificed their home to foreclosure, having lost thousands of dollars and their good credit rating. They didn't feel that it was safe to live there anymore, or to bring other people into their home. Finally they decided to move out of their "dream house" in Spokane. To this day, that home remains vacant.

Apart from the tremendous economic loss, Mr. Busch and his wife are concerned for their health. They are left wondering what long-term negative health effects they may suffer as a result of their exposure to asbestos fibers from the insulation. Mr. Busch has told me, "I feel like the poster-child for the unsuspecting homeowner who unknowingly set off a time bomb in the process of remodeling his home."

To this day, Mr. Busch is haunted by words he read in the Spokesman-Review almost three years ago. The March 12, 2000, article, entitled, "Zonolite's Effects Outlive Plant," said this about mesothelioma:

"The disease inflicts one of the most torturous deaths known to humankind. Some people require intravenous morphine to numb mesothelioma's pain. Some need part of their spinal cord severed. Some are driven to suicide."

If there is a role for government in people's lives, then it should include protecting the public health. We have an opportunity to protect the public's health so that Ralph Busch and thousands - perhaps millions - of other Americans won't have to be needlessly exposed to the time bomb sitting in their homes, schools and businesses.

And meanwhile, if you are planning to do work in your attic, look at your insulation carefully first to see if it is vermiculite. You can see pictures of what this insulation looks like by going to EPA's web site, which is www.epa.gov/asbestos/insulation.html. If you think you have Zonolite, immediately contact EPA to get additional advice about how to handle it. According to EPA's web site, if you think you have Zonolite insulation, leave it alone and not disturb it.

And, contact your Representative in Congress and ask him or her to pass legislation to ban asbestos, something we all should have done decades ago. We can make a difference, but we must act today.


Q & A Regarding Vermiculite Insulation

What phone numbers can I call if I have health or homeowner-related questions about vermiculite insulation?

EPA has a toll-free number (1-800-471-7127) to call with vermiculite-related questions. Callers from New England will be referred to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry web page (www.atsdr.cdc.gov) for health questions and EPA New England's asbestos program coordinator for homeowner questions.

What is vermiculite insulation and where does it come from?

Vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral that is mined throughout the world. In the United States, active vermiculite mining operations are in South Carolina and Virginia. When heated, the vermiculite ore expands into a light, fluffy material, that is fire resistant, chemically inert, absorbent, light weight and odorless. The absorbent properties of the expanded vermiculite make it useful in lawn and garden, agricultural, and horticultural products. It is commonly used as an ingredient in potting soil, thermal and sound insulation, construction material, insulation material and for lightweight, absorbent packaging material.

How is W.R. Grace Co. involved in this issue?

W.R.Grace owned and operated a vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana. Much of the vermiculite from this mine was used in the company's Zonolite attic insulation, a product that the company sold from 1963 to 1984 when its sale by the company was discontinued. More than 75 percent of the vermiculite ore mined in the world came from the Libby mine, which has been closed since 1990.

If I have vermiculite insulation, is it possible it contains asbestos?

The Libby mine was unusual because the area also included a natural deposit of tremolite asbestos. As a result, much of the vermiculite from the Libby mine was contaminated with tremolite asbestos. In light of the amount of vermiculite that came from Libby, it may be best to simply assume the vermiculite attic insulation will contain trace amounts of asbestos and act accordingly.

What should I do if I have vermiculite attic-insulation in my home?

Look at the insulation without disturbing it. Commercial vermiculite can range in size from very fine particles to large (course) pieces nearly one inch long. Vermiculite attic insulation is a light weight, pebble-like, pour-in or add-on (loose) product and is usually light brown or gold in color. It's texture is often compared to "popcorn" and can often be re-shaped when pressed together with the fingers. If it appears you have vermiculite insulation in your home, we recommend the following steps:

If possible, leave the insulation undisturbed. Asbestos fibers will not become airborne if the insulation is well contained. If the vermiculite is sealed behind wallboards and floorboards or is isolated in an attic that is vented outside, the best approach to avoid exposure to asbestos is to keep the vermiculite in place. If a ventilation system within the attic disturbs the material, it may be appropriate to have the air tested in your home.

Until there are better methods to analyze for asbestos in vermiculite, and to know what that means in terms of risk, it is best to assume the material may contain asbestos. If you decide to remove the vermiculite home insulation, use accredited, licensed asbestos removal professionals. Use of a “negative pressure enclosure” technique will prevent asbestos fibers and dust from escaping from the attic into the rest of the home. Do not attempt to do this yourself. You could spread asbestos fibers throughout your home, putting you and your family at risk of inhaling asbestos fibers.

Was Zonolite widely used?

Much of Zonolite vermiculite insulation came from the Libby, Montana mine that was used from the early 1900's until the mine was closed in 1990. Although Zonolite attic insulation had a healthy market in the northeast, the EPA has found it impossible to estimate the number of homes, businesses and schools that may still contain Zonolite vermiculite attic insulation.

How do I find a contractor?

Numerous consulting companies perform this kind of work. In Massachusetts, consultants must be licensed by the Massachusetts Department of Labor & Workforce Development. For a list of all certified contractors in Massachusetts, contact the MDLWD at (617) 969-7177. Callers from other New England states may obtain a list from your state environmental agencies or the state departments of health.

If there is asbestos in the insulation, should I have it removed?

Undisturbed vermiculite home insulation that is intact and not migrating into living areas should not pose a significant exposure hazard for home occupants. However, occupants should avoid going into their attics and disturbing the insulation.


If work must be done in attics containing vermiculite asbestos insulation, it should be performed by professionals familiar with the handling and containment of asbestos containing materials. 


Before taking that step, homeowners should consider a number of factors. First, removing asbestos-containing materials is typically very expensive. If a significant amount of material is involved, it will probably cost thousands of dollars. If the insulation is not exposed to the home environment - for example, it's sealed behind wallboards and floorboards or is isolated in an attic that is vented outside - homeowners should leave it alone. For a fact sheet on Asbestos, visit ATSDR's web page at www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts61.html. Further studies are being conducted by the EPA to evaluate the risks from vermiculite attic insulation.

Is my family at risk of exposure to asbestos if we have renovated and removed/disturbed the asbestos-contaminated vermiculite insulation? What if I have lived in a home with vermiculite insulation?

Asbestos fibers are microscopic and easily released into the air. These tiny fibers can be present in the dust in an area where asbestos-contaminated vermiculite insulation is disturbed. Therefore, it is possible that you inhaled some asbestos fibers. The amount inhaled - and the corresponding risk - will depend on how many fibers (of the respirable size) were in the air, and the time period over which you were breathing the air containing the fibers, as well as how fast you were breathing. Risks are more substantial with longer and larger exposures.

If you are concerned about having experienced a significant exposure, consult a physician who specializes in environmental or occupational medicine. It may take many years after an exposure for symptoms to develop; however, you should see a doctor if you notice any change in your breathing ability or develop problems breathing.

I understand that much of the data EPA now has on risk from exposure to asbestos in vermiculite products stems from a study conducted in Vermont. Why did EPA initiate this study and what were the results of the study?

The study was initiated to determine whether vermiculite attic insulation could expose homeowners to asbestos. EPA did not intend this to be a comprehensive risk assessment. As part of EPA’s research plan, a more comprehensive risk assessment will be conducted.

The preliminary results of this phase of the study indicate that exposure to asbestos is possible when vermiculite attic insulation is disturbed. The results of the initial phase of the study have enabled EPA to identify additional areas requiring further study and the agency is planning a larger scale investigation into risks. The results of the study support the agency’s existing guidance to homeowners: 1) manage asbestos contaminated material in place, 2) do not disturb it and 3) hire professionals for removal and testing.


One of the top sites where the tainted vermiculite was shipped was West Chicago, Parker said. Target 5 learned that the former Grace plant recceived more than 273,000 tons. And that is why, Parker said, the federal government is now quietly analyzing the spot for contamination.


Zonolite went from the plant into area homes -- an estimated 800,000 homes in Illinois.


"How dangerous is Zonolite, which was originally sold as a family fun project?" Parker asked.


In August 2000, an assistant U.S. surgeon general characterized it as so dangerous that "even minimal handling by workers or residents poses a substantial health risk."


The Environmental Protection Agency warns that if Zonolite is inhaled, it "may cause diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma."


It is a deadly but invisible risk, Parker said.


Showing video of workers removing Zonolite from an attic, Parker noted that in normal light, the dust is barely visible. But when special lighting was used, the video clearly showed how pervasive it is when disturbed.


"It is a fact that Zonolite was sold nationwide to customers for decades," Parker said. "It is also a fact that Zonolite was contaminated with the most lethal form of asbestos. So why, then, haven't consumers who still have this product in their homes ever been warned?"


The EPA was going to make such a warning, an article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported in December. But it has not happened, and there still has never been such an outreach to consumers, Parker reported.


After allegations arose that the EPA plan to issue a warning had been squelched, Sen. Patty Murray, of Washington, demanded answers.


"Who stopped it?" Murray asked. "Was it the industry that told the White House, 'Don't say this.' I don't know, but I know, as a consumer and someone who represents potentially thousands of homeowners who have Zonolite, I want the information out there."


But for now, Parker said, it's the insulation that is out there, and it poses an undisputed risk to anyone who comes in contact with its airborne fibers.


It is a risk that was unwittingly taken by the Jorgensens, Parker said. At the age of 44, Harris, a husband and father, died of asbestosis. His only known exposure was the plant across the street from his home.


"They killed my husband," Harris' widow told Parker. "They may kill my children. It's got to stop."


Parker said Zonolite is brownish in color, about the size of popcorn kernels, and flecked with a silvery or gold-colored metallic material. It was usually applied by pouring it into open spaces, usually after construction. It sits loose in joists and open spaces.


"Everyone we have talked to about this agrees: No homeowner should attempt to remove this material without the help of trained, licensed professionals," Parker said.



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