There are certain words—many, alas, are medical terms—that typically don’t make it into your vocabulary unless you or someone you know has to deal with them at close hand. Such is the case with vermiculite: It’s easy to remain oblivious until the day you learn your house may be stuffed with it.
Vermiculite is a mineral that comes out of the ground in the form of thin sheets, like mica; when you heat it up it expands into a tangle of wormlike fibers. (The name comes from the Latin vermiculari, meaning “to be full of worms.”) These fibers are fireproof, lightweight, and absorbent, and various bright types figured out a while back that they could be used as packing material, as a soil additive, to soak up unwanted chemicals, and as insulation. The U.S. is home to several major vermiculite deposits, and commercial producers have been mining and processing the stuff here since the 1920s.
The trouble with vermiculite has nothing to do with the substance itself, but rather with a contaminant that’s sometimes found in vermiculite ores: asbestos. Asbestos, for those too young to remember its pre-regulation heyday, is something you really don’t want to mess with: inhaling its fibers can lead to various fatal diseases, including some truly aggressive cancers of the cardiopulmonary system, that may not show up until years down the road.
And here we arrive at the hapless town of Libby, Mont., where the massive Zonolite vermiculite mine was operated for 60-plus years before its 1990 shutdown. The mine supplied something like 80 percent of the world’s vermiculite—in the process seriously contaminating much of the surrounding area with asbestos. Libby residents, downwind from the mine, were exposed to about 10 times as much asbestos as OSHA has determined to be acceptable, while the mine workers got more like 1,300 times the established safe limit. The upshot, according to investigative work by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: At least 200 asbestos-related deaths so far with more diagnoses cropping up every month and an incidence of lung abnormalities in Libby that’s conservatively 15 times the rate seen elsewhere.
In 2005 the Justice Department indicted several officers of the W.R. Grace Company—which ran the Libby mine from 1963 on—charging that they knowingly risked the health of Libby citizens by keeping quiet about asbestos risks; the case may go to the Supreme Court this year. Meanwhile, in March Grace agreed to pay the feds $250 million for investigation and cleanup efforts in Libby—a record sum for a Superfund case, but it may not even cover the EPA’s expenses.
So how many homes were insulated with vermiculite? No one seems to know; U.S. estimates range from 2.5 million to 35 million. Before fretting about it, you need to check with someone who actually knows what vermiculite looks like—many homeowners panic over insulation that turns out to be harmless. If vermiculite really is what you’ve got, you can have it tested for asbestos, but the EPA warns that the testing process currently has some serious technical problems. Given that, and given how much of the vermiculite out there came from the Libby mine, it might be simplest just to figure that any vermiculite is likely to be the bad kind.
Opinions vary on how aggressively to deal with asbestos risk, but a lot of experts tell you to just: 1. make sure insulation fibers have no route into the living areas of the house and 2. forget any activity—renovations, using the attic for storage, etc—that might disturb the insulation. A small-scale 2001 government study found no airborne asbestos or asbestos dust in homes whose attics were insulated with contaminated vermiculite as long as nothing was done to stir the stuff up. I hate to say it, but the bottom line is: Leave it alone and you’ll probably be fine.
Technically, it’s not just insulation that poses such potential threat, as there are plenty of vermiculite-bearing gardening products around too—it’s added to potting soils to help them hold more water. In 2000 the EPA tested 54 of these: 22 contained asbestos, it turned out, with 8 containing significant amounts and 1 actually releasing asbestos fibers into the air when used. Overall, though, the exposure level for the average gardener was found to be quite low—you’d need to be planting peonies on a pretty epic scale to have much to worry about.
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