White House Delayed Announcement of Zonolite Danger

EPA Already Removing Zonolite from Montana Homes

WASHINGTON, D.C.-January 10, 2003-The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was set to issue a national alert about asbestos in Zonolite insulation, when the White House intervened, according to a recent news story (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12/27/2002). Originally slated for last April, the announcement would have been included in a declaration of "public emergency."

"When the government comes across this kind of information and doesn't tell people about it, I just think it's wrong, unconscionable..." former EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus said about the failure to warn homeowners (quoted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch). "Your first obligation is to tell the people living in these homes of the possible danger."

The White House Office of Management and Budget was the agency that nixed the emergency declaration. It is headed by John Graham, a man many environmental and health groups consider unfriendly to consumer causes.

Millions of U.S. Homes Contain Asbestos-Contaminated Zonolite

Up to 35 million homes in the United States may be insulated with Zonolite. A large portion of the insulation is derived from asbestos-containing vermiculite, a mineral ore resembling mica that was mined in the small town of Libby, Montana. The contaminated vermiculite was shipped throughout the nation.

Although Libby's asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine shut down in 1990, its legacy of death and disease remains. Town residents develop asbestos diseases such asbestosis and mesothelioma at a rate that is 60 times that of other geographic areas. Libby has been declared a Superfund disaster area, in need of federal aid.

The EPA chose to begin the removal of Zonolite insulation from homes in Libby, Montana, at the same time that it agreed not to issue a nationwide warning about Zonolite dangers (see EPA to Remove Zonolite Insulation from Libby). It also pledged to clean up asbestos-containing soil from Libby yards, school grounds and parks (EPA Environmental News, May 9, 2002).

How Zonolite Asbestos Becomes a Hazard

Asbestos-containing Zonolite becomes a problem if it is disturbed or in poor repair. For example, if you drill in an attic insulated with Zonolite, or if the insulation becomes deteriorated, there is a high risk that asbestos fibers will become airborne. The homeowner may then breath in asbestos dust or fibers.

You cannot determine if your home contains asbestos-contaminated Zonolite by a mere visual inspection. You may take insulation samples yourself and send them to a certified laboratory, although this procedure is not recommended unless you are cautious and use special techniques (see How to Check for Asbestos In My Home). The National Institute for Standards and Technology maintains web lists of laboratories certified to do asbestos analysis (see Directories of Accredited Laboratories, Transmission Electron Microscopy or TEM and Polarized Light Transmission or PLM methods).

You can hire a professional to take samples of suspect Zonolite insulation, but make sure the person you choose is certified to do this work. He or she should have received proper training, including a federal or state-approved asbestos safety course. Your regional EPA office or local health department will have a list of these asbestos professionals in your area.

Other Asbestos Products Are Still In Use

Unfortunately, Zonolite is not the only product that still contains asbestos. Asbestos-contaminated vermiculite has been used in soil conditioners, fertilizers, and animal feed. Other products that may include the substance are automobile brake shoes and clutches, building materials, and older small appliances and hair dryers, to name a few. According to the National Cancer Institute, asbestos has been a component in almost 5,000 consumer products, many of which remain in use (see From Coffee Pots to Potting Soil: Asbestos Use is Rampant).

Last year, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) introduced a bill entitled the "Ban Asbestos in America Act." It would have prohibited the manufacture, import, or distribution of asbestos products in the United States and increased research grants for finding a treatment for mesothelioma. The legislature failed to pass this bill.

Asbestos will be banned in most European Union countries by 2005. Argentina, Australia, Chile, Croatia, El Salvador, Iceland, Latvia, and Saudi Arabia have also banned asbestos. Clearly, we in the United States have some catching up to do in eliminating this dangerous substance.

Brayton Purcell is concerned about asbestos in products, at job sites, and in the environment. We have over 20 years of experience in asbestos litigation. If you or a family member has been injured by asbestos exposure, please feel free to contact us to learn about your legal options.