Vermiculite Northwest Processing Plants Exposed Workers to High Levels of Asbestos

Asbestos Not Contained at Portland Plant, Surrounding Areas Contaminated With Asbestos

PORTLAND, OR - June 23, 2006 - Workers employed at the Vermiculite Northwest plant in Portland from 1967 to 1994 were exposed to high levels of asbestos, according to a study issued by the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS). Former employees of the company report that the air inside the plant was dusty, breathing was difficult, and conditions were unbearable. Problems continued even after the government required dust suppression methods, such as exhaust fans and filtering, in the 1970s. Records from the plant's owner, W.R. Grace, confirm the high levels of asbestos dust.

More than 200 plants, including Vermiculite Northwest, processed asbestos-contaminated vermiculite obtained from a mine in Libby, Montana. The Vermiculite Northwest plant appears on a list of 28 facilities selected for government review that received large quantities of the vermiculite.

Vermiculite is a type of ore resembling mica that can form lightweight, fire resistant material. All the plants molded vermiculite so that it could be used in attic insulation, soil conditioners and other products. Vermiculite is heated to very high temperatures and "popped" until it releases water. If the vermiculite contains asbestos, asbestos fibers are released at this time. Vermiculite Northwest workers also manufactured Monokote®, a fireproofing spray that contained asbestos.

High Risk for Asbestos Disease in Plant Workers and Families

Former Northwest plant employees have a high risk of developing asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer that first attacks the membranes lining the lungs or stomach. At least two former employees have been diagnosed with asbestosis. Because asbestos-related diseases take several decades to develop, we do not yet know the full extent of the problem among Northwest plant workers.

Workers' families are also at risk. There were no changing facilities at the plant, so the workers rarely put on different clothes before going home. They brought back the deadly asbestos dust in their hair and on their clothing, increasing the likelihood that their families would develop asbestos diseases.

Workers routinely brought home asbestos-containing waste material from the plant to be used for gardening and paving. Children playing in yards containing the waste material could have been exposed to asbestos by kicking up the dust and inhaling it.

Asbestos Exposure Not Limited to Plant Employees

Other businesses shared the same building as Vermiculite Northwest. The report suggests that their employees could have come into contact with asbestos. Workers at neighboring businesses and people who worked outdoors on the northwest, northeast and southeast sides of the plant also may have been exposed to asbestos fibers released into the air.

W.R. Grace may have disposed of waste materials containing asbestos at local landfills. Any disturbance releasing dust into the air would have exposed people in the vicinity to asbestos. In addition, children may have played in piles of waste material that were left outside the plant and that were awaiting disposal.

W.R. Grace vacated the Vermiculite Northwest plant in 1994. In March, 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found asbestos-containing vermiculite dust remaining on the soil surface of the site. Dust collected from the rafters was 1.4% asbestos. Abatement was recommended and performed in 2002. The current report found that more cleanup work needs to be done.

Neighborhood Asbestos Exposure Not Known

The Vermiculite Northwest plant is located at 2302 N. Harding Street. The closest residences are one-quarter mile away at Mississippi Avenue and Knott Street. The Portland neighborhoods of Overlook and Eliot are each less than one mile from the plant.

There is no specific information available on airborne asbestos-laden dust during the plant's operation prior to 1994. Vermiculite Northwest passed all emissions standards for particulate matter. Standards at the time were for visible dust particles and not microscopic fibers such as asbestos. Therefore, those emissions may not be safe using today's standards, and neighborhoods may have been exposed to asbestos.

What to Do If You Have Been Exposed

The DHS urges former Vermiculite Northwest workers and their families to see doctors with experience in detecting and treating asbestos-related diseases (News Release, May 23, 2006). The agency's public health division has issued a Neighborhood Health Alert directed to anyone who:

  • Currently lives near the former Vermiculite Northwest plant
  • Worked at the plant between 1967 and 1994
  • Lived in the same household as a worker at the plant between 1967 and 1994
  • Lived near the plant for any period between 1967 and 1994

If you fit into any of these categories, you should inform your doctor about your potential asbestos exposure. To protect your health and to help prevent lung infections, you should quit smoking and get a flu shot each year.

If you have any information about disposal of waste rock from the Vermiculite Northwest site, please contact Amanda Guay, Program Coordinator for the Superfund Health Investigation and Education Program at 503-731-4025. You may also contact the DHS at this number if you have other questions about the Vermiculite Northwest plant and your health.

If you would like to know more about asbestos diseases and your legal rights, please contact our asbestos attorneys, at our California office (800-720-4981) or our Portland office (503-295-4931). Since 1984, Brayton Purcell has been successfully representing victims of asbestos diseases. We will review your case free of charge and advise you of your legal choices.