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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Guest Post: Vermiculite Attic Insulation

Bill Childs is on vacation this week. Filling in for him is author Andrea Peacock, telling the story of the W.R. Grace corporation’s tragic legacy in the small town of Libby, Montana. This is part five of seven.

Katie Gaines and David Madison bought their house outside Glacier National Park just as the two were beginning their lives together. They’d been good friends for years, navigating a long-distance relationship. David had a job in North Carolina, Katie’s midwifery practice in Whitefish, Montana, was thriving. After several years of trying to negotiate the geography, David moved to Montana. Six months before their wedding, the couple made a discovery that put a serious dent in their bliss: Their new home had been insulated with asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from Libby, Montana.

Gaines and Madison are part of an increasing number of Americans who, in the wake of revelations from Libby, find themselves having to balance their health against their savings accounts. W.R Grace’s Libby mine was the world’s largest known source of vermiculite, and provided 80 percent of the vermiculite sold in the world. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that upwards of 15 million buildings[i] in the U.S. were insulated with Grace’s vermiculite.

While scientists and technicians from the Denver office of the Environmental Protection Agency have spent the last six years trying to clean Libby’s homes and businesses, their efforts there underscore a larger problem: The long-established EPA safety limit of less than one percent asbestos in any given material—relied on to this day by the real estate and construction industries—has proven to be unreliable at best, deadly at worst. In the summer of 2004, the Centers for Disease Control announced some startling news: Asbestos mortality nationally has soared, from 77 asbestos-related deaths in 1968 to 1,493 in 2000.

Though a contractor told Katie and David the vermiculite in their attic was no big deal, they’d heard too many horror stories from Libby to feel secure. They decided to investigate further. From what they could figure, the previous owner had gone in with a shop-vacuum and sucked out what he could, in the process probably contaminating the entire house. A sample of the vermiculite in the attic tested positive for asbestos at .5 percent: well within the EPA’s safety standard of less than one percent, but a worrisome figure nonetheless.

The problem, says EPA doctor Aubrey Miller, a veteran of the Libby cleanup, is that one percent standard has proven to be meaningless. “Our work in Libby has clearly demonstrated that materials that have less than one percent—well less than one percent—are dangerous, and when we went back and reviewed the basis of that rule, the one percent rule, it had absolutely no basis essentially with regard to the hazardous nature of materials. One percent means nothing about whether something’s hazardous or not.”

Furthermore, an EPA pilot study of vermiculite attic insulation like that found in Katie and David’s house shows that even materials that test negative for asbestos may still contain dangerous amounts. The report released in 2003 from tests conducted in an old Vermont farmhouse revealed that vermiculite insulation which tested out clean for asbestos nevertheless threw the deadly fibers into the air, which samplers then picked up.

While the EPA is searching for an analytical tool that will allow homeowners to have their vermiculite tested in a way that is both accurate and cost-effective, none exists at this point. In May 2003, three federal agencies issued a joint national warning, cautioning homeowners living with vermiculite attic insulation to avoid disturbing the material. While this sounds simple, Miller says that vermiculite is very easy to stir up: put in a ceiling fan or putter around in your attic and you’re asking for trouble.

“If you have vermiculite attic insulation, it is a hazardous material. Period. Don’t touch it, don’t go near it,” he says. “If you’ve got it and you can get rid of it, then do so.”

Miller says he knows of no data regarding the health risks associated with sealing vermiculite in versus removing it altogether. As their wedding date neared, Katie and David consulted experts, had their air tested and faced a tough decision. The average cost of a home cleanup in Libby in 2002 was $150,000, more than they paid for their house to being with. Should they spend tens of thousands of dollars they did not have to remove all traces of vermiculite from their home, or have the walls sealed, the house cleaned with wet-wipes, and hope the best? They opted for the latter. They spent $6,825, and have finally stopped holding their breaths. “After it was totally cleaned, this fellow came in and we were out of the house. He used blowers and set up air quality monitors and all of those tests came back totally clear,” Katie says. “So that made us feel better about being in the living space.

“But you know, you feel like on hot days when you wish you had a fan in the attic, you realize you can’t because the attic is toxic.”

The EPA has set up a website for people who suspect they have vermiculite insulation in their homes: http://www.epa.gov/asbestos/pubs/insulation.html

Andrea Peacock

Livingston, Montana

Author of Libby, Montana: Asbestos and the Deadly Silence of an American Corporation


[i] Weiss, Chris (EPA toxicologist). Email to Andrea Peacock. 7/26/04.

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