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Zonolite’s continued threat and the government’s inaction

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image Vermiculite insulation "pebbles." EPA says any vermiculite should be treated as though it contains asbestos.

In Libby, Montana, where vermiculite for insulation was mined for 70 years, 400 residents have died from diseases believed related to exposure to vermiculite. About 35 million U.S. homes and businesses still contain asbestos-laden insulation. Most aren't aware of the danger.

by Eric Stevenson

In the rural town of Libby, Montana, mining gave the residents a source of income since the 1920s. Ironically, the same mine that brought the town life through jobs and commerce also led to rampant devastation, as recent evidence has attributed more than 400 Libby deaths to exposure to the material being mined, vermiculite. Furthermore, under the commercial name Zonolite, this insulation was sold extensively throughout the northeastern United States. In 1963, the W.R. Grace Company purchased the mine and Zonolite insulation, producing an estimated 80 percent of the world’s supply of the material from 1963 until it ceased production in 1990, amid asbestos contamination reports.

Despite the knowledge that as many as 35 million homes and businesses in the U.S. contain this asbestos-laden material, shown to lead to devastating mesothelioma symptoms, the government has continually refused to warn the public of these dangers. Although the Environmental Protection Agency was sent into Libby in 1999 to investigate the numerous alleged cases of mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis occurring in the town, a proper response to the findings has yet to be seen.

Although as far back as 1982 the EPA wrote detailed reports indicating the elevated levels of asbestos fibers present in and around Libby were potentially lethal, the agency did nothing to protect the miners, residents of Libby or those who later processed the material in the U.S. and Canada. Worse still, despite promises made by the last three EPA administrators to warn the public about this dangerous insulation, nothing was ever reported, allowing this insulation to remain in millions of homes to this day.

In his four-part AOL series on the controversies surrounding Zonolite, Andrew Schneider reports that previous attempts by EPA administrators were met with “strong opposition from a small but vocal group in the agency's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxins, who repeatedly urged that national warning about the dangers of the vermiculite insulation not be made.” According to his report, the agency’s motivations remained purely monetary, expressing their fears over the cost of taking responsibility of the toxin and initiating a cleanup. According to Schneider, those in the EPA opposed to publicly announcing the dangers of this material “said that even if the agency paid for the cleaning of only 1 million homes, it would cost more than $10 billion.”

With little more than a page describing the dangers associated with vermiculite exposure, the EPA’s message to homeowners remains clear: you’re on your own. While the organization provides plenty of information on their site regarding the history of W.R. Grace Co., identifying asbestos and even who to call for abatement services, information chronicling their involvement in the on-going tragedy in Libby, Montana remain absent.

In 2007, led by Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash., the Senate passed a ban on asbestos, ostensibly a win for all the families of Libby, Montana, that suffered so greatly and the millions more Americans that can expect to suffer. Much to the disappointment of those who fought so hard, this ban that ostensibly outlawed the use of asbestos actually allows 1 percent by weight to linger in the material, which was a far cry from the act of accountability we expect from our government. In no uncertain terms, we again saw the U.S. government refusing to fully protect the public from the dangers of this chemical when this law was passed. As those 35 million or so homes continue to deteriorate, allowing this lethal material to escape, we must question the true motives of a government unwilling to protect the safety of its citizens.

Despite a tragically short mesothelioma life expectancy, brought on by the disease’s hidden symptoms, the EPA still refuses to appropriately warn the millions of homeowners raising families with this material above their head. Although a widespread campaign to educate and inform individuals about vermiculite could lead homeowners to seek the early mesothelioma diagnosis that could save their lives, out of a fear of focusing the public outrage on themselves and absorbing the costs of funding the removal of the insulation, the government has chosen to remain silent, instead allowing families in the U.S. to identify, remove and seek treatment alone.         

Eric Stevenson is a health and safety advocate who resides in the Southeastern United States.

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