EPA Region 10 Vermiculite Questions and Answers | Region 10 | US EPA

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EPA Region 10 Vermiculite Questions and Answers

Questions and Answers on Asbestos Exposure and Vermiculite

Consumer Product Information

How do I know if my home insulation contains vermiculite contaminated by asbestos?
Insulation must be tested to verify whether it contains asbestos. Many types of insulation can be irritating to the skin, nose, throat, and lungs in some people.

If the insulation does not contain asbestos, then the threat of harm from asbestos is absent.

Even if it contains asbestos, the insulation may not be a problem if it is in good condition. For asbestos to present a problem for the homeowner it must be in the form of tiny fibers in the air that can be in inhaled or ingested.

Just going into the attic without disturbing a lot of dust will probably not harm you.

If you do you touch or move the insulation in your attic, it is unlikely that the airborne asbestos fibers would enter your living space in a number that would harm you.

If, however, you believe you have been exposed to a lot of dust from attic insulation that contains asbestos, you may want to consult a physician with expertise in environmental or occupational medicine.

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Is my family at risk of exposure to asbestos if we have renovated and removed/disturbed the asbestos insulation?
Asbestos fibers are microscopic. These tiny fibers can be present in the dust in an area where asbestos insulation is disturbed. If you observed a lot of dust when removing/disturbing asbestos it is possible that you inhaled some asbestos fibers. Usually, however, it takes more exposure than a few trips to the attic to develop the health problems associated with exposure to asbestos. Most health problems associated with exposure to asbestos result from a 10 year + exposure to asbestos fibers in the air.

If you are concerned about possible exposure, consult a physician who specializes in environmental or occupational medicine. It usually takes many years after an exposure for symptoms to develop; however, you should see a doctor if you notice any change in your breathing ability or develop problems breathing.

If I’m renovating my home, and it contains contaminated vermiculite insulation, how do I handle it?
There are firms that specialize in removing asbestos safely. You may be able to locate these firms through your state or county health department.

If you think you have asbestos insulation, do not attempt to remove it yourself.

I know there is vermiculite in my potting soil. Is it dangerous?
Vermiculite alone should not cause harmful health effects. However, as with any particulate matter, breathing in large amounts of particles can cause irritation to the nose and throat. Some vermiculite contains asbestos as an impurity. For the asbestos to cause harmful health effects, it must exist as tiny free fibers that could be inhaled or ingested.

A person must generally be exposed to asbestos for a long period of time (10 or more years) before health effects occur.

Vermiculite is used in potting soil for plant generation, where it appears as bright gold or silver colored flakes. The Libby vermiculite should not be confused with the white plastic substance also found in many potting soil mixtures.

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Assessing Processing Plants
What is EPA doing to determine if processing plants around the United States that accepted vermiculite ore from the Libby site are contaminated?
EPA is examining processing facilities which may have been recipients of asbestos-containing vermiculite ore from the Libby mine. The EPA review is in two parts. First EPA will review the location of facilities which have been provisionally identified from records at the Libby mine and from other sources, and determine the accuracy of these records. Second, after positively identifying the site and its physical location, EPA will determine whether the facility actually processed Libby vermiculite, and whether the processing facility is still in use either as a facility for vermiculite or for another commercial or industrial process. EPA expects to complete this phase of the assessment within the next 4-6 weeks for all of the facilities which EPA believes once were used for vermiculite processing. If it is confirmed from this first step that vermiculite was processed and contamination is likely a second more detailed investigation will be conducted. The second investigation will include at least detailed sampling of air and soil around the facility. Other types of samples from surrounding areas may be collected if there is a concern that the vermiculite may have migrated off the immediate property of the processing facility. If there is a site which presents a major health hazard due to asbestos or vermiculite residue or materials remaining on site, EPA will move swiftly to remove or contain the hazardous material on the site. Nationally, EPA continues to work with other Federal, and state environmental and health agencies to determine the extent of vermiculite processing around the U.S.

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Exposure & Health Information

How would I come into contact with (be exposed to) asbestos?
People who work in industries that use asbestos or asbestos-containing products, such as building materials for construction, may breathe into their lungs fibers that are in the air. Workers also may carry these fibers home on their clothes. When fibers enter the air, family members may come into contact with asbestos by inhaling fibers. In addition, people who live or work near asbestos-related operations may inhale asbestos fibers that enter the air because of releases of materials into the environment. Some asbestos fibers are so small they float in the air and cannot be seen. People may breathe these fibers into their lungs. People may also swallow asbestos if they eat in areas where there are asbestos fibers in the air.

The amount of asbestos a person is exposed to will vary according to:
  • How many fibers are in the air
  • How long a person breathes the air containing asbestos fibers
  • How fast they breathe
Does asbestos exposure cause health problems?
Some people exposed to asbestos have health problems because of the asbestos; some do not. After asbestos fibers are breathed in, they can easily enter body tissues. The fibers may become trapped in the airways and lung tissue. Each time you breathe asbestos fibers into your lungs you increase the chance of developing health problems. Diseases related to asbestos may not show up until several years later. Today, health problems are showing up in people who worked with asbestos during World War II..

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What illnesses are associated with asbestos exposure?
a) Asbestosis - a serious, progressive, long-term disease of the lungs. It is not cancer. It is caused by inhaling asbestos fibers tat irritate lung tissues and cause the tissues to scar. The scarring makes it hard for oxygen to get into the blood. Symptoms of asbestosis include shortness of breath and a dry, crackling sound in the lungs while inhaling. The chance of developing asbestosis is very small for those who do not work with asbestos. Neighborhood or family exposure rarely causes the disease. There is no effective treatment for asbestosis, and the disease can cause disability and death.

b) Lung Cancer - causes the largest number of deaths related to asbestos exposure. People who work in the mining, milling, manufacturing, and use of asbestos and its products are more likely to develop lung cancer than the general population. The most common symptoms of lung cancer are coughing and a change in breathing. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, persistent chest pains, hoarseness, and anemia. People who have been exposed to asbestos and also are exposed to some other cancer-causing product, such as cigarette smoke, have a greater risk of developing lung cancer than people who have only been exposed to asbestos.

c) Mesothelioma - a form of cancer that is found in the thin lining (membrane) of the lung, chest, abdomen, and heart. About 200 cases are diagnosed each year in the United States, and almost all cases are linked with exposure to asbestos. About 2 percent of all miners and textile workers who work with asbestos and 10 percent of all workers who were involved in the manufacture of gas masks that contained asbestos develop mesothelioma. This disease may not show up until several years after asbestos exposure. This is why great efforts are being made to prevent school children from being exposed.

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Vermiculite Insulation

What is vermiculite insulation?
It is an insulation product that contains a mineral called vermiculite that comes from mines in Libby, Montana and other mines across the United States
and other countries.

If I have vermiculite insulation, is it possible it contains asbestos?
More than 70 percent of the vermiculite ore mined in the world came from the Libby mine which has been
closed since 1990. This particular mine was unusual because the area also included a natural deposit of tremolite asbestos. As a result, much of the vermiculite from the Libby mine was contaminated with tremolite asbestos.

How is W.R. Grace Co. involved in this issue?
W.R. Grace owned and operated the vermiculite mine in Libby. Much of the vermiculite from this mine was used in the company's Zonolite attic insulation, a product that the company sold from 1963 to 1984 when its sale by the company was discontinued.

Was Zonolite widely used?
EPA estimated in 1985 that 940,000 American homes contained, or had contained, Zonolite attic fill.

If I think I might have vermiculite insulation in my home, what do you suggest I do?
If you know you have vermiculite insulation in your attic or walls and you're concerned about it, it probably makes sense to test the material to see if it contains asbestos.

Can I test the material myself?
If you want to have a sample analyzed, we suggest hiring a trained consultant or contractor to collect the sample and get it analyzed at a laboratory. We discourage collecting the sample yourself.

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How do I find a contractor and a laboratory?
There are numerous consulting companies that perform this kind of work. You can look in the yellow pages under "asbestos consulting and testing" for asbestos consultants.

In addition, numerous laboratories throughout the nation who test materials to determine asbestos content participate voluntarily in a national certification program, the National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program. You also can look up asbestos laboratories in the Yellow Pages under "asbestos consulting and testing."

If there are no consultants available during the time frame we need and we want to collect the material ourselves, what would your advice be?
As long as you follow the laboratory's specific suggestions for removing the material, it shouldn't be a problem. To minimize the potential for airborne releases from the material, samples should be wet when being collected. Using gloves and a cloth face mask are advised as well.

What if the material is found to contain asbestos? What should I do?
Depending on the asbestos levels in the samples, how much vermiculite is in the house and where the material is located, you may want to consider getting your air tested just to be sure the asbestos isn't getting into the air. To determine how to test the air, you can call a laboratory or consultant found in the yellow pages under "asbestos consultants and testing." In addition, numerous laboratories throughout the nation who test for asbestos in the air participate voluntarily in a national certification program, the National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program.

If there is asbestos in the insulation, should I have it removed?
Before taking that step, homeowners should consider a number of factors. First, removing asbestos-containing materials is typically very expensive. If a significant amount of material is involved, it will probably costs thousands of dollars. Secondly, due to the physical characteristics of vermiculite, there's a low potential the material is getting into the air. If the insulation is not exposed to the home environment - for example, it's sealed behind wallboards and floorboards or is isolated in the attic which is vented outside - the best advice would be to leave it alone.

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URL: http://yosemite.epa.gov/r10/owcm.nsf/asbestos/vermiculite+QA

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