WASHINGTON (Nov. 29) — Americans living in millions of homes will soon crawl into their attics to collect their holiday decorations. With those colorful lights and ornaments could come invisible and deadly asbestos fibers that decades from now may destroy or end the lives of some of the celebrants. For years the government has known that the attics and walls of as many as 35 million homes and businesses are insulated with Zonolite, which contains lethal asbestos-tainted vermiculite. Some medical authorities believe that people are still dying because of it. Paul Kitagaki Jr. with permission of the Seattle Post-Inteligencer Ten years ago, then EPA investigator Keven McDermott crawled through an attic in Manchester, Wash., confirming the presence of 130 bags of asbestos-containing Zonolite insulation. “Based on my experience, and my understanding of the residential and worker exposures to the asbestos in this insulation, I believe firmly that individuals are being sickened and even dying from these exposures across the country on a continuing basis,” said Dr. Aubrey Miller, who was medical director for the EPA team that was sent to the remote town of Libby, Mont., in 1999 to investigate reports of hundreds of deaths and illnesses with asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer. More than 400 deaths have been attributed to exposure to vermiculite in the community in which it was mined, and a litany of solid scientific studies has shown that it can kill. Yet AOL News has documented that the government has steadfastly refused even to issue widespread warnings to the public about the dangers of a product that was became a popular insulation in the 1940s and continued to be installed in U.S. homes through the 1990s.
The tale of this confirmed killer includes political intrigue, White House intervention, industry meddling and the failure of three Environmental Protection Agency administrators to act on their promises. In This Series Part 1: Government Refuses to Act on Cancer-Causing Insulation Madison Square Garden Case Illustrates Paranoia What to Do If You Have Zonolite Insulation Part 2: Cancer Patient’s Home a ‘Living Laboratory’ for Deadly Fibers Part 3: ‘In Libby, There Was No Maybe’ About Dangers Part 4: Asbestos Dangers Known Centuries Ago, but Battle Continues When asked what they’ve done to alert the public, EPA officials repeatedly point to the vermiculite page on the agency’s website, which even many inside the agency say is inadequate. W. R. Grace & Co., which produced the vermiculite ore used in the insulation, continues to insist that the insulation is safe and presents no health risk to homeowners.
Zonolite insulation hasn’t been sold for years, but experts fear its dangers may be more acute today than ever. They worry about the spread of asbestos contamination in aging homes containing this insulation. And they fear that government-funded plans to weatherize millions of homes will increase the likelihood of exposure among installers and residents. While the threat exists all year, every year until the Zonolite is removed, experts like Miller believe the potential for exposure to the asbestos is greatest during the holidays. He and other researchers from the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have learned from homeowners that while they may go up to their attics occasionally during the year, holidays almost always necessitate climbing the attic stairs. Miller told AOL News that decorations, coils of lights, artificial wreaths and trees may have become the resting place for asbestos-laden dust over the years. He said he can only imagine how much asbestos has collected in the fake trees and wreaths. But he’s worried most about exposure to the younger children. “It’s particularly important to understand the risks for children who have higher breathing rates and will inhale more of the fibers,” said Miller, a father of two. “Children, especially young ones, tend to spend much of their time on the floor playing with the ornaments and toys, breathing the asbestos-contaminated dust, and have many years for the asbestos fibers that lodge in their lungs to eventually cause disease.” Dangers Widespread For decades, the Grace mine, six miles from Libby, was the source of more than 70 percent of the world’s vermiculite, and geologists say almost all was heavily contaminated with an exceptionally virulent type of cancer-causing asbestos. U.S.Geological Service This shows 1,000-times magnification of needlelike asbestos fibers that contaminate the vermiculite ore from Libby, Mont. These are the same fibers released when Zonolite insulation is even gently disturbed.
No one even knows how many people with lung disease are made ill because of exposure to the tainted vermiculite because most physicians — especially those who are not occupational medicine specialists — rarely probe their patients beyond the traditional question of whether they’d ever worked with asbestos. Since 1999, Miller, Chris Weis, who was EPA’s lead forensic toxicologist on the Libby team, and many of their colleagues have worked closely with the victims of vermiculite and their survivors. They and other government scientists collected more evidence than they wanted showing that exposure to the asbestos in the insulation can trigger a 20-year or longer path to eventual disease and death for those who disturb and then breathe in the cancer-causing fibers. They have fought for years to get the government to disclose the risk to home and business owners throughout the country who have no clue that they may be living with a potentially lethal product. But they were far from alone in calling for highly publicized government warnings. Then and now, union health and safety personnel expressed concern for their members who crawl in and around attics and ceilings doing renovations and stringing telephone, television and Internet cables.
“I am amazed and appalled that nothing has happened,” Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, told AOL News last week. “Given the tremendous government-funded winterization programs, we can expect exposure to workers to increase as they disturb the old asbestos-carrying insulations,” he said. It was at least eight years ago when NYCOSH — a nonprofit coalition of 200 unions and hundreds of health and safety activists — first pleaded for the government to pay attention. “Failure of the government to inform workers and others who may be exposed to this hazard is incorrigible. This is a well-known, aggressive carcinogen and unless people know about it, it’s a prescription for death,” Shufro said. Spreading From Libby to the Rest of U.S. The vermiculite ore pulled from the Grace mine was laced with naturally occurring tremolite, one of the most toxic of six forms of asbestos regulated by the government. Interviews and medical records showed that asbestos first killed miners and then their wives and children and then others just living in Libby. More than 400 deaths have been blamed on the asbestos-fouled vermiculite. Government medical testing found that more than a thousand more had signs of asbestos-related disease. But that was just among people living in and near that corner of Montana. Andrew Schneider for AOL News The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tracked shipments to vermiculite, used in Zonolite insulation, from Libby, Mont., to all over the world.How did this dangerous product get into so many homes so far from Libby? The government analyzed invoices and shipping papers of the massive building-products and chemical multinational. It found that Grace shipped by rail and road 15.6 billion pounds of the identical cancer-causing mineral that spawned the carnage in Libby to more than 750 plants and factories throughout North America.
There the flat, silky smooth, raw vermiculite rock went through high-temperature ovens to pop or exfoliate the ore into popcorn-weight fluff that was then bagged and sold by Grace and hundreds of home- and builder-supply outlets as insulation. Sometimes it was used in scores of other products, such as fertilzer, pool lining, garden additives, potting soil enhancers, cat litter and faux ambers for gas fireplaces. “There are millions, likely tens of millions of homes in the United States probably contaminated with this [lethal] material. The inventories show it was pretty much distributed from coast to coast, most heavily across the tier of Northern states — New England, the upper Midwest and the Northwest — and in all likelihood, it’s still there,” toxicologist Weis said. Agency statisticians geographically plotted sales of Libby vermiculite and showed it went into homes at least as far south as Jacksonville, Fla., and deep into the northern portions of the Canadian provinces. Sales were highest from Grace’s national network of processing plants. The threat may be even more pressing today because the potential for hazard is increasing as the homes containing this insulation age. “They’re being renovated. New wiring is being put in as the aging wiring becomes unsafe. Internet wiring and cabling is being installed in these attics, as well as exhaust fans and various type of winterization,” said Weis, who is now senior toxicologist with the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences. “All of this activity — even the most gentle action — disturbs the asbestos, endangering not only the workers but spreading it though the homes,” he added. But even if the attics are well sealed off from the rest of the house, the EPA and its outside asbestos consultants have found asbestos-contaminated vermiculite dust seeping through wall switches, ceiling-light fixtures and fans and sometimes through the dried-out joint tape in ceilings and walls. “If I had Zonolite in my house I would want to know it, and if I knew it, I would do everything I could to get it out of there,” said Paul Peronard, who headed the EPA’s cleanup of Libby