U.S. Government Knew About Asbestos at Vermiculite Plants

High Rate of Asbestos Diseases Amongst Vermiculite Workers

February 6, 2004—Over two decades ago, federal health officials failed to warn neighborhood residents that a local St. Louis vermiculite plant was releasing dangerous levels of asbestos into the air, according to a recent article in the St. Louis Post–Dispatch. In a 1982 report, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that inhaling asbestos contained in contaminated vermiculite caused serious health problems, but issued no protective regulations (Office of the Inspector General, EPA's Actions Concerning Asbestos–Contaminated Vermiculite). In other reports from the 1980s, the agency estimated that more than 13 million people lived close enough to contaminated vermiculite plants, including the one in St. Louis, to be exposed to potentially harmful levels of asbestos, the newspaper stated.

W.R. Grace and Co. owned the St. Louis facility, one of 750 "expansion plants" in North America that processed asbestos–contaminated vermiculite into products such as garden fertilizers and Zonolite brand attic insulation. These plants received the vermiculite from a mine in Libby, Montana, a town declared a Superfund disaster area after asbestos was found in its parks, community centers, homes, and schools. Former Libby mine workers and many other town residents developed asbestos diseases such asasbestosis and the cancer mesothelioma as the result of their asbestos exposure.

ATSDR Studies Effects of Asbestos Exposure from Vermiculite

The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), along with state, local, and other federal government agencies, now plans to examine over 200 U.S. plants that received the Libby vermiculite. They will measure current asbestos levels at each plant and in the surrounding areas, consider past asbestos exposure pathways, and track the health of people who lived nearby.

The first stage of the study will focus on 28 plants that together received about 80 percent of the contaminated Libby vermiculite. They are scattered throughout the nation, from New York and Florida to the Midwest to the West Coast and Hawaii. The ATSDR has already examined five of these plants located in Maryland, South Dakota, California, West Chicago, and Denver, that processed an amazing total of 882,000 tons of asbestos–containing vermiculite.

The ATSDR concluded that former plant workers at the five sites were exposed to hazardous levels of asbestos. People who lived with former workers were also exposed to asbestos from fibers carried home on the workers' hair and clothing. "Anyone who worked in these plants that processed asbestos–contaminated vermiculite from Libby, Montana, or had family members who worked there, or washed the worker's clothes or lived anywhere nearby, should see a physician knowledgeable about identifying asbestos–related diseases," said Scott Mall, an ATSDR spokesman (St. Louis Post–Dispatch, January 25, 2004). This is because asbestos diseases generally take decades to develop. Someone who was heavily exposed to asbestos in the 1970s, for example, could just begin to show symptoms of mesothelioma today. Paul Peronard, Environmental Protection Agency coordinator of Libby's asbestos cleanup, concurred, "…I don't think people need to wait for ATSDR to get around to their community to be told to see a doctor. If they worked at one of these [vermiculite expansion] plants or lived near one, it would be smart to see a physician now," he said.

Peronard's view is also in line with the sad history of Libby, Montana. Although the asbestos–contaminated vermiculite mine closed in 1990, hundreds of Libby residents developed asbestos diseases. In 2000, an ATSDR medical screening program uncovered pleural abnormalities in 18% of the people who participated. The agency also found that mortality in Libby from asbestos diseases was 40 to 80 times higher than in other areas (EPA Press Release, August 27, 2003).

What is Vermiculite? How is it Processed?

Vermiculite is a mineral closely related to mica. When heated, it expands to form a lightweight material that has been used in insulation, fertilizers, pesticides, potting mixes, composts, and animal feed. The vermiculite from Libby, Montana contains asbestos in the form of tremolite, a white to grayish green silicate composed of calcium, magnesium, and iron. It is in the "amphibole" family, which consists of fibers with a chain–like structure. Libby vermiculite may also include various other asbestos amphiboles as well as the more common chrysotile asbestos. (See the discussion of asbestos types.)

The manufacturing facilities or expansion plants worked with raw water–containing vermiculite. When vermiculite is heated to high temperatures, the water becomes steam and flakes of vermiculite spread out and expand (Vermiculite, U.S. Geological Survey). The resulting "popped" or "exfoliated" material is inert, fire resistant, and odorless. If the vermiculite contains asbestos, the asbestos fibers are released in high amounts during the popping process.

Failure to Warn Consumers About Vermiculite Insulation

Zonolite attic insulation contains vermiculite, much of which may be derived from the Libby, Montana mine. It was used in 35 million homes in 40 states, according to a report in the Seattle Post–Intelligencer (May 10, 2002). The asbestos in this insulation can become airborne through common activities such as home remodeling or repair. For example, drilling or patching through an attic or ceiling containing asbestos insulation can release fibers.

Unfortunately, the government's record of alerting consumers to the hazards posed by vermiculite insulation has been less than stellar. Although the EPA first agreed to begin removing Zonolite insulation from homes in Libby, Montana in May, 2002, it avoided declaring a national emergency about Zonolite at that time. Some claim that the EPA intended to issue a warning to homeowners, but was prevented from doing so by the White House (see White House Squelched Alert on Asbestos Insulation). After intense negative media attention and a related speech by Senator Patty Murray (D–WA) in the Senate, the EPA finally issued an alert about vermiculite insulation in May, 2003 (see EPA Issues Vermiculite Insulation Warning). It has also started a campaign to increase public awareness about the substance.

How Can I Find Out More About Vermiculite Processing and Products?

Consumers can now find out specific details about vermiculite processing plants, and vermiculite products, including Zonolite insulation, through government web sites. The EPA has produced a pamphlet about vermiculite attic insulation that describes how to identify and manage the product. It includes photos of this pebble–like product, which is usually light–brown or gold in color. The agency recommends not disturbing Zonolite insulation if it is encapsulated and in good condition. It also suggests hiring professionals trained and certified to handle asbestos if attic repairs, remodeling, or utility installations are necessary. Other precautions include storing items in places other than the attic and making the attic off–limits to children. Homeowners are also warned that dust masks will not protect them from asbestos fibers; all attic work should be done by professionals.

You can read about asbestos in vermiculite garden products in an EPA study (see Sampling and Analysis of Consumer Garden Products). The agency found trace amounts of asbestos in 17 of 38 products tested. Four of these products contained substantial amounts of asbestos: Schultz's Horticultural Vermiculite, Earthgro's Best Vermiculite, Hoffman's Vermiculite and Ace Horticultural Grade Vermiculite. Despite the study, both the EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have declared that vermiculite in garden products is not a problem. Some consumer groups disagree. They point out that garden products are not labeled for asbestos content, and that the EPA has found it necessary to issue instructions concerning vermiculite use. These EPA recommendations include using premixed potting soils, which are moist and less likely to generate dust, and using alternatives to vermiculite such as peat, sawdust, perlite or bark. The agency also recommends that gardeners who do use straight vermiculite keep the material damp, use it in a well–ventilated area, and avoid getting vermiculite dust on their clothing.

You can find the ATSDR study of vermiculite expansion plants, entitled the National Asbestos Exposure Review, on the agency's web site. For a partial list of expansion plants that may have received large amounts of asbestos–contaminated vermiculite, see the Phase One National Map. Although some of these plants may now be closed or used for different purposes, the list provides physical addresses and includes dates of operation.

For information about asbestos diseases and your legal rights, please contact our asbestos attorneys at Brayton Purcell. We have extensive experience in asbestos litigation on behalf of workers and their families, and aggressively defend the rights of those who suffer from asbestos diseases.