Utah Workers Risked Asbestos Exposure at Vermiculite Plants

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - April 27, 2007 - Six years after beginning a study examining the health of the community near two Salt Lake City vermiculite processing plants contaminated with asbestos, the Utah Department of Health has issued a Neighborhood Health Alert. The Department "dropped the ball," and should have widely publicized the asbestos problem and contacted the media much sooner, the Salt Lake Tribune charged in an editorial this month. "Former employees have been walking around with time bombs ticking in their chests," the newspaper said, pointing out that asbestos-related diseases are best treated when they are discovered early.

Vermiculite Processing Releases Asbestos

Vermiculite is an ore used in making potting soils and insulation. Most vermiculite was shipped from a mine in Libby, Montana, that was heavily contaminated with asbestos. During manufacturing, vermiculite is heated to high temperatures, and "popped" or "exfoliated" so that it expands, releases water and forms a lightweight, fire-resistant material. Asbestos is also released during this process if the vermiculite is contaminated.

The Health Alert addresses workers and their families as well as residents near the former Vermiculite Intermountain and Intermountain Products facilities in Salt Lake City. The Vermiculite Intermountain plant, located at 333 West 100 South, operated as a vermiculite exfoliation plant from 1941-1986. It received over 25,000 tons of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from Libby and manufactured it into Zonolite brand insulation. The Intermountain Products plant at 733 West 800 South was in business from 1985-1987. It processed asbestos-contaminated vermiculite into spray-on fire protection.

Who Was Exposed to Asbestos?

During the time the vermiculite processing plants operated, over 14,000 children lived within two miles of the sites. The total population of that small area was 70,404. According to the Neighborhood Health Alert, workers at the plants were at the highest risk for asbestos exposure. Besides vermiculite exfoliation, other activities may have released asbestos fibers:

  • unloading vermiculite from rail cars
  • moving vermiculite to furnaces
  • handling unexpanded vermiculite or waste rock after processing

Vermiculite workers may have taken home waste rock to use in gardens or tracked home asbestos on their clothes and shoes, endangering the health of their families. Former residents risked asbestos exposure, since children were free to play on vermiculite waste rock piles left outside the plant. Some residents may have come into contact with asbestos when asbestos dust and fibers were released into the air during plant operations.

What Did the Utah Asbestos Vermiculite Study Find?

The Utah Department of Health study or health consultation investigated the rate of cancer in the two-mile area around the vermiculite plants from 1973-2000 using data from the Utah Cancer Registry and from the Office of Vital Records and Statistics. The rate of all asbestos-related cancers combined was elevated compared to the rate in other parts of Utah, as was the rate of lung cancer.

The rate of the asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma, alone did not increase near the vermiculite plants during this time period. The researchers noted that these mesothelioma statistics could be influenced by a failure to track people moving out of the area and by the long latency period for mesothelioma. A latency period is the time that it takes to develop a disease, which often is 30-40 years or more after initial exposure to asbestos in the case of mesothelioma.

The study may be found on the web site of the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Asbestos Exposure and Your Legal Rights

With our main office located in California, the mesothelioma attorneys at Brayton Purcell have been extensively involved in protecting the legal rights of asbestos victims, including injured workers and their families for over 24 years. Many of our clients suffer from asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer, or other asbestos-related diseases. We will provide a free evaluation of your potential case if you have been exposed to asbestos and think you may have developed an asbestos-related disease.