California and Washington Homes May Contain Asbestos

Vermiculite Used in Zonolite Found to Contain Asbestos

January 31, 2003-Homes in California and Washington may contain asbestos-contaminated Zonolite brand insulation, according to recent news reports (Sacramento Bee, January 21, 2003; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 30, 2002). Zonolite is a loose-fill insulation that was used in walls and attics. It has been sold under the name "Zonolite Attic Insulation." Unlike common types of loose fill insulations such as fiberglass and rock wool, which are fibrous, Zonolite is in the form of brownish-pink or brownish-silver chips.

In California, Zonolite was manufactured in a plant in Sacramento from 1956-64 and in another plant in Newark from 1964-94. Both facilities provided the Zonolite for homes in the Northern and Central Valley areas of the state.

Zonolite insulation was also produced in a Spokane, Washington plant and used in 150,000 homes in the state (Seattle Post-Intelligencer; May 10, 2002; Spokesman Review, January 11, 2003). Nationwide, up to 35 million homes may contain the asbestos-tainted insulation.

How Zonolite Becomes Contaminated with Asbestos

The majority of Zonolite insulation is derived from asbestos-containing vermiculite, a mineral ore resembling mica that was mined in Libby, Montana, a small town with a large asbestos problem. (See Libby Residents Still Risk Asbestos Exposure). When heated, vermiculite "pops" or "exfoliates," forming a lightweight substance used in insulation and soil additives. If the vermiculite contains asbestos, asbestos fibers are released into the air during exfoliation, creating a serious health hazard.

Asbestos-containing vermiculite is dangerous even after it is processed into Zonolite because damaged insulation may release asbestos fibers. Remodeling or drilling into the insulation to make repairs is enough to spread asbestos dust. Do-it-yourselfers and even some contractors may not realize that they are dealing with a hazardous substance.

An Outcry Against Zonolite

The media recently discovered that last April, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was set to issue a national alert about asbestos in Zonolite insulation, but the White House intervened (see White House Squelched Alert on Asbestos Insulation). The announcement would have been included in a declaration of "public emergency," warning homeowners of the asbestos hazard from Zonolite. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was the agency that pressured the EPA to keep quiet, according to a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (12/27/2002).

The reaction to the EPA's omission has been swift. One national consumer group, Public Citizen, wrote a scathing letter to the OMB, protesting that agency's attempt to halt the declaration of a public health emergency (Letter to Mitch Daniels, January 8, 2003).

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) also demanded an explanation from both the OMB and the EPA about why the hazards of Zonolite were not made public. The OMB has not yet responded to her request, and Ms. Murray was not satisfied with the answers given by EPA Administrator Christine Whitman ( Press Releases; January 3, 2003 and January 21, 2003).

Meanwhile, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is compiling data about where Libby vermiculite may have been shipped. Senator Murray plans to reintroduce legislation that would provide education to the public about asbestos in Zonolite, and ban asbestos products in the United States. It would be modeled on last's year's Ban Asbestos in America Act, which failed to become law.

Although W.R. Grace & Co., the manufacturer of Zonolite, has filed for the protection of the bankruptcy courts, homeowners with contaminated homes or who have sustained injuries as a result of exposure to the asbestos-tainted insulation may still file claims with the bankruptcy court, and suppliers, distributors and installers of the product may also have liability. Individuals who think they may have claims should contact an attorney to explore their rights.

For more information about asbestos in building materials, see Asbestos in My Home. If you have questions about asbestos and your legal rights, please feel free to contact our mesothelioma attorneys. Since 1984 we have been successfully handling asbestos cases for workers, consumers, and their families.