Vermiculite is a versatile material that is used for insulation and gardening. It expands when heat is applied and is a common replacement for soil in some gardening applications, such as aquatic plants. Vermiculite ranges from colorless to green and brown and can be found in a number of different forms, typically suited to its application. Vermiculite asbestos became a concern after residents of Libby, Montana were sickened by a Vermiculite mine there. Today’s vermiculite is safe and non-toxic, but at the time, that Vermiculite, sold under trade name Zonolite, has been found to have asbestos contamination.
Why is vermiculite asbestos dangerous?
The asbestos found with Zonolite is Tremolite asbestos. Tremolite is neither common nor the most dangerous form of asbestos, but can sicken you nonetheless. Dust from Tremolite is as small as five microns underscoring how difficult it is to determine if you are being poisoned by it. Particles this small are generally indiscernible to the human eye, making its detection and eventually sickening of victims harder to pinpoint.
What is vermiculite and how might it affect me?
Vermiculite was one of the most common ways Tremolite asbestos made it into households. While today’s vermiculite has no asbestos content, Vermiculite, particularly under the name Zonolite, had toxic levels of this material. Zonolite was used to insulate walls and attics and was sold under a number of trade names to consumers. Those that have used Zonolite products have almost certainly been exposed to trace amounts of Tremolite asbestos. An estimate one million households have some form of vermiculite in their homes. As long as the insulation is not disturbed, there is only minor danger. Removing the vermiculite or otherwise disturbing it however, will also certainly spread dangerous particles into the air.
How does Tremolite affect the health of those that are exposed to it?
Those with existing conditions and behaviors, such as smoking tobacco or extended exposure to other harmful substances are especially at risk of injury from Vermiculite asbestos. The fibers from exposed, contaminated vermiculite are toxic and strand like, which means when they embed in the lungs, they cause serious harm for the surrounding tissue. Vermiculite asbestos does not break down and will spur malignant growth in sufficient concentrations.
There are two typical ends to high asbestos exposure. Asbestosis, due to a high concentration of the dangerous particles in the lungs, causes the organ walls to harden and suffocate the victim. The victim of asbestosis will suffer from diminished lung function for the rest of their life.
Mesothelioma, which is a rare cancer caused by asbestos contamination, affects the linings of the lungs, heart and diaphragm. The fibers present cause painful tumors that will lead to bleeding and fluid buildup in the lungs. The life expectancy after mesothelioma develops is only two years.
Should I remove vermiculite asbestos?
As long as the material in question, usually insulation is sealed and secure, it poses no threat to health. If it is tampered, damaged or exposed, it will release millions of fibers and should be removed by a trained professional only. Any home that has Zonolite insulation and other products should have their property inspected by a professional for signs of potential contamination. Only at the advice of this professional should you decide to remove the vermiculite asbestos.
Asbestos is usually abated with high power vacuums and strong filters. As the fibers from asbestos are tiny and easily released, abatement will take place in a sealed environment, with the tools necessary to attract all possible fibers and minimize incidental exposure.
How did stocks of vermiculite become contaminated with asbestos?
Libby, Montana is now a Superfund environmental disaster site, in no small part due to asbestos mining. Most of the world’s vermiculite was made here under the trade name Zonolite. Improper controls for asbestos materials, either during the mining or disposal practice, releases asbestos into the air and sickened generations of the residents of the small town. Not until 40 years after did the extent of damages become apparent. The first criminal prosecution for asbestos exposure was brought against the manufacturer, W.R. Grace and Company, but they were found not guilty of conspiracy and other charges.
Classifying the area as a disaster site allowed more funding to go to helping the residents of Libby get medical treatment for their illness.
What was the legal ramifications of vermiculite asbestos?
In 2008, the EPA launched a $8 million dollar investigation into conditions in the area and upon doing so made the decision to declare the area a disaster zone. To date, $370 million has been spent on the ongoing cleanup of the Libby area. Litigation was not filed by the residents of Libby, as the company quickly settled with many businesses and property owners for $60 million.
Several employees of Grace & Co were put on trial for criminal conspiracy for failing to inform the residents of Libby of the potential harm of Tremolite asbestos knowingly released into the environment. When brought before a jury however, they were acquitted on all counts.
After the healthcare reform overhaul, found in the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, victims of public health emergencies are entitled to Medicare payments, which apply to all Libby residents.
What should I do if I am exposed to vermiculite asbestos?
When you are exposed to vermiculite, you can sue for legal damage if you are able to prove that the employer, builder or other entity was aware of the potential consequences of exposure. Those that have worked with vermiculite on a regular basis will be the most at risk. Remember that this only applies to Zonolite branded vermiculite produced until the early 90s.
Class actions suits may have been filed on your behalf. You have to explicitly opt out of class action before you can collect additional damages through individual litigation. Even with a great mesothelioma attorney, your success is not guaranteed, but you can increase your chances by hiring the best lawyers, that are knowledgeable about asbestos law and have spent decades winning damages for victims of exposure.