Web Extra Friday, January 3

Asbestos under wraps

The Environmental Protection Agency was poised last spring to tell millions of Americans that their homes might contain an insulation contaminated with asbestos, according to a news report this week in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. However, the White House intervened and stopped the announcement several days before it was to happen.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch broke the story after acquiring nine boxes of internal documents from the Environmental Protection Agency under the Freedom of Information Act. The documents indicate that the agency had put together an education campaign that included press releases warning of the potential contamination and a list of governors and politicians to notify before the White House's Office of Budget and Management stepped in and stopped the announcement.

The potential asbestos contamination lies within a particular type of insulation called Zonolite made with vermiculite, nearly all of which was mined between the 1940s and 1990s in Libby, Montana. Three years ago, an investigation by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer revealed that vermiculite at Libby contained small amounts of the amphibole mineral tremolite, a type of asbestos. Nearly 200 asbestos-related deaths have occurred in Libby over the past 40 years. W.R. Grace and Co., which last owned the Libby mines, declared bankruptcy under financial pressure from suits related to asbestos illnesses. The Environmental Protection Agency has made the Libby mine site a Superfund site.

Although no vermiculite has been mined from Libby for the past decade, the internal documents revealed that asbestos-tainted vermiculite from Libby mines may reside in the 15 to 30 million homes in the United States built with Zonolite.

Neither White House nor Environmental Protection Agency officials have publicly announced why they did not to issue the warning.

The severity of the potential contamination is not clear. Some geologists and health experts think tremolite is a particularly dangerous form of asbestos when it is in the air. The tiny fibers can get lodged in the lungs and lead to cancer. However, asbestos is not a threat when it remains locked in materials such as insulation, and W.R. Grace and Co. claims that its Zonolite presents no health risks. Ironically, efforts to remove asbestos contaminated insulation can actually increase the chances of illness by forcing asbestos fibers out of the insulation and into the air.

compiled by Greg Peterson


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