EPA to Remove Asbestos Contaminated Insulation from Libby Homes

Vermiculite Used for Zonolite Comes from Libby Mine

LIBBY, MT-May 17, 2002-The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced that it will remove asbestos-containing Zonolite insulation from hundreds of homes in Libby, Montana, a designated Superfund clean-up site. Despite the health hazards posed by asbestos, the agency has avoided declaring a "public health emergency" and has no immediate plans to eliminate Zonolite insulation from millions of other residences nationwide.

Asbestos in the Libby Vermiculite Mine

Zonolite insulation is made from vermiculite (magnesium-aluminum-iron silicate), a mineral ore resembling mica that is also used in soil conditioners, fertilizers, and animal feed. Over 80% of processed vermiculite comes from a mine in Libby, Montana, that is heavily contaminated with tremolite asbestos.

Although the mine closed down in 1990, Libby residents are at high risk for contracting asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis and the cancer mesothelioma, which often take decades to develop. Most mineworkers were exposed to asbestos. Family members may also have come into contact with asbestos through handling the mineworker's contaminated clothes or shoes. And town locals have long lived with asbestos-contaminated roads, schools, playgrounds, and gardens or made use of asbestos-containing products such as Zonolite insulation.

Zonolite Insulation Used in Other Areas of the U.S.

But part of Libby's problem may be more widespread. Zonolite insulation was used in 35 million residences in 40 states, including 150,000 in Washington state, according to information gathered by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (May 10, 2002). The asbestos in this insulation can become airborne through common activities such as home renovation, remodeling, or repair. For example, drilling or patching through an attic or ceiling containing asbestos insulation can release fibers. Installing telephone or cable devices in attics insulated with Zonolite may stir up asbestos dust.

The EPA provides a warning about Zonolite insulation on its web site, but has yet to launch a comprehensive national campaign to alert citizens about asbestos insulation dangers. US Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) has been concerned with the government's handling of the situation. "The EPA must inform the public that if they have Zonolite insulation in their homes, it may contain asbestos," Murray said (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 10, 2002). "...Americans need to know that asbestos is still a problem, it is still put into consumer products on purpose, and it is still showing up in products by accident."

For further information about asbestos in daily life, see Asbestos in Consumer Products and Asbestos in the Home.