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Vermiculite & Asbestos/Mesothelioma

For decades, asbestos was seen as the perfect material to enhance many areas of home construction.  From it’s resilience to it’s heat resistance and relatively low price, it became popular in the last half of the 19th century and was used throughout the 20th century.

That is, until sales came to an abrupt stop in the 1970s due to discoveries that asbestos was linked to significant health problems, such as  mesothelioma, which remains incurable to this day. While studies have shown this for some time prior to the ban, companies carelessly continued to include the asbestos in their products – and after manufacturing ceased, carried on selling leftover stock.

This prevalence means that asbestos can be found in many areas of the home, from flooring to roofing and everything in between. This includes vermiculite insulation, which often (but not always) contains dangerous asbestos fibers, that can lead to devastating diseases.

What is vermiculite?

Vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral that has been used for decades as an insulation material. This is because of certain properties it has – when heated to 1000 degrees Celsius, it puffs up into an expanded form up to 30 times its original size, creating pockets of air ideal for insulation. Expanded vermiculite is also fireproof, and therefore useful in making houses safe.

Pure vermiculite is actually non-toxic, and itself has no associated health risk. However, it becomes dangerous when tremolite asbestos is mixed into it, as is often the case in homes that were built in the 20th century.

You can usually identify vermiculite insulation from its appearance. This kind of insulation is a pour-in style product that resembles pebbles, and is usually a gray, brown, or metallic color. The size of individual pieces of mineral ranges from microscopic to around one inch in length. The material itself is lightweight and coarse, but if you suspect your insulation is made from vermiculite, you should never touch it or disturb it.

Why does vermiculite insulation contain asbestos?

While other products often contained asbestos because of its useful properties (chemical resistance, durability, etc.), one particular brand of vermiculite insulation actually contained asbestos for another reason that pertained to how the main material was collected.

Zonolite was a popular brand of vermiculite insulation that was sold up until 1990. While asbestos was not intentionally mixed into the insulation, all of the vermiculite sold by this specific brand was gathered in a mine near Libby, Montana that was also an asbestos deposit.

This meant that invisible asbestos fibers often attached to the vermiculite, and therefore entered the insulation. Because 70% of all vermiculite was mined here, some other vermiculite containing products were also impacted.

You can therefore assume if you have Zonolite brand insulation in your home that it is likely to be contaminated with asbestos fibers.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that you leave this insulation untouched in order to avoid letting fibers into the air, and look into removal if you intend on remodeling your home. Though not all vermiculite contains these toxic substances, there’s no safe amount of asbestos you can inhale, and it’s best not to take the risk.

What are the risks of asbestos exposure?

The inhalation of asbestos fibers (which are impossible to see or smell) can lead to devastating consequences for your health that may not appear for decades – until it’s too late to fix. When you inhale these fibers, they become stuck in the lining of your lungs, and cannot be broken down by your body. This can cause intense scarring of your lungs – on its own a serious health issue – and can lead to more severe lung disease if left unchecked.

Lung scarring can cause tumors to form, which can eventually develop into lung cancer and mesothelioma (a particularly aggressive form of lung cancer caused exclusively by asbestos exposure).

Though the vermiculite insulation mined in Libby, Montana won’t necessarily lead to lung cancer if it isn’t disturbed, especially as these illnesses become more likely depending on the amount of fibers you have inhaled, people who worked in these mines were exposed to asbestos on a regular basis, and many now face these diseases. Manual laborers like roofers and builders who installed this insulation on a regular basis as a career are also more likely to face asbestos related illness in the future.

Additionally, because touching or interacting with this insulation can disturb the vermiculite and cause exposure to asbestos in your own home, you must take precautions such as:

• Not storing items in an attic that contains vermiculite attic insulation
• Not attempting to remove the insulation by yourself without any kind of safety training
• Leaving the insulation untouched
• Not allowing children to play in an area with vermiculite insulation near, as they can potentially knock and disturb it while playing
• Hiring a professional to remove the asbestos contaminated materials if you plan on renovating your home
• Wearing a protective mask if you need to go into an area with vermiculite insulation

If you have contracted an asbestos related illness due to vermiculite sold by a particular company, you may be entitled to financial compensation. Contact us for a free consultation if you want to learn more. Although lung diseases from exposure to asbestos are the tragic consequence of the carelessness of certain manufacturers, hopefully some sense of justice can be found by those impacted taking legal action.