"Asbestos" is a vernacular name given to a group of naturally occurring amphibole and serpentine minerals. Asbestos is more common in areas where mountain building has occurred. Normally, the minerals are locked up in the earth's crust, and in that form they are harmless to human health, but when asbestos dust is released into the earth's atmosphere by mining, refining, housing construction, house remodeling, or demolition, it becomes extremely deadly.
There are six minerals that are called "asbestos" and all of them are dangerous when they are in the form of dust particles (particularly dust particles larger than 5 microns in length, and with a length to width ratio of 5:1). 1 micron = 0.00003937 inch. In comparison, the grain size of talcum powder is a whopping 30-40 microns in diameter. Different asbestos minerals cause slightly different pathologies when inhaled. Although research on tremolite is still on-going, environmental health specialists suspect that tremolite dust is the most deadly.
The six asbestos minerals are:
Amosite (asbestos variety of cummingtonite) (Mg, Fe)7Si8O22(OH)2
How does tremolite asbestos make me sick?
All asbestos minerals are elongated crystals. Some varieties (such as actinolite/tremolite) are needle-like. When dust-size particles are inhaled, the crystals penetrate into the lung tissue by piercing the walls of the alveoli. Once the particles penetrate the lung tissue, they stay in the lungs permanently. There is no way to remove them. Eventually these crystals will cause a scarring of the lungs, called asbestosis, or cause a cancer of the lining (pleura) of the lung, called mesothelioma. Both of these diseases are currently incurable and both are terminal. Mesothelioma is almost exclusively linked to exposure to asbestos dust. In mesothelioma victims, the pleura of the lung becomes thick and leathery, and it loses its elasticity. Death from mesothelioma usually occurs as a progressive suffocation caused by fluid build-up around the lungs. Victims suffering from severe asbestosis have symptoms generally similar to the symptoms of terminal emphysema. Many researchers now believe that in past decades, some asbestosis cases were mis-diagnosed as emphysema. The effects of exposure to tremolite asbestos has not been studied as thoroughly as with other asbestos minerals (see also reference #4, below), but very preliminary research suggests that autoimmune diseases such as psoriasis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis sometimes precede the onset of symptoms of tremolite asbestosis and tremolite-induced mesothelioma cancer (Pfau et al., 2004) . Only time will tell if these diseases can be shown to be warning signs for later tremolite asbestos disease.
Symptoms of exposure to tremolite asbestos dust can show up anytime from a couple years to up to 40 years after first exposure.
Are federal workplace standards for asbestos the same thing as safety standards?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not identified a "safe" exposure threshold for any of the asbestos minerals. Federal workplace standards for asbestos (not specifically for tremolite asbestos, which is believed to be more toxic) currently allow a maximum concentration of 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter of air. Even though this standard is in place, no one knows if 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter of air is actually a "safe" level. When toxicology research on tremolite is completed in a few years, it is possible, if not probable, that the maximum allowable workplace concentration for this particular form of asbestos will be lower than for the other asbestos minerals. In fact, the EPA has hinted that even its own standards for asbestos removal may have to be revised. In one of their 2009 action memos, they state, "Preliminary review of these results indicates that the current removal action for asbestos in soil is likely to be revised to a lower concentration" (see Peacock, 2010, p. 242). All legislative efforts to place effective safety regulations or bans on asbestos in consumer products have failed, and an EPA ban was overturned by an appeals court in 1991. The legislative efforts have failed due to lobbying efforts by mining and energy corporations. W. R. Grace & Co. and another company, Halliburton Corp., are only two of many obstructionist corporations in this regard. Even Canada, which exports large amounts of chrysotile asbestos into the U. S., has expressed support for no regulations on its asbestos.
Is there anything I can do to prevent the onset of disease?
Unfortunately, once the asbestos dust has imbedded itself in the lungs, there are no proven preventative measures. Chest X-rays can help diagnose tremolite asbestosis disease long before symptoms are noticed by the patient. From anecdotal evidence, it appears that a few people develop symptoms later in life than do other people. This phenomenon may be related to the particular genetic disposition of the individual and it needs to be investigated further. Even though the beginning, or the progression, of asbestosis and mesothelioma currently cannot be stopped, the onset of their first symptoms might be delayed a couple years by practicing healthy life habits.
When I read documents about Libby, Montana, I sometimes see the letters "LA". To what is "LA" referring?
"LA" is an acronym for Libby Amphibole (tremolite asbestos). An increasing number of government documents and scientific articles are using the term. To avoid confusion, "Libby Amphibole" should be written out in full.
In what consumer products is tremolite asbestos a contaminant?
In the Libby, Montana area, tremolite asbestos is associated with a hydrated mica ore mineral called vermiculite. Vermiculite (trade name ZonoliteTM) was mined and was sold in housing insulation and as a soil conditioner for gardens. Libby's Rainy Creek Mine provided at least 80% of the world's supply of vermiculite. If you have ZonoliteTM vermiculite insulation in your house or in your garden, it probably came from the Libby mine. It has been shown that Libby's vermiculite insulation and potting soil that was sold to consumers contains tremolite asbestos as a contaminant. If you poured the ZonoliteTM into the attic or into the walls yourself, then you have been exposed to tremolite asbestos dust (even if you wore a hardware store dust mask).
The most common brands of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite insulation include, but are not limited to, the following consumer products:
Zonolite Attic Insulation
Zonolite Insulating Fill
Quiselle Insulating Fill
Sears Micro Fill
Ward's Mineral Fill
Wickes Attic Insulation
Cashway Attic Insulation
Mica Pellets Attic Insulation
Monokote-4 [This particular type of tremolite-contaminated industrial grade vermiculite insulation was applied as a spray-on coating for steel support pillars and cross beams in high-rise buildings.]
How do I know if I have vermiculite on my property?
Vermiculite (ZonoliteTM) was sold mainly in the form of loose flakes. Look for the presence of shiny tan to golden-colored flakes in your insulation or in your garden soil and potting soil. Sometimes the flakes are a shiny black. The vermiculite occasionally occurs as clumps of flakes and it may have the appearance of bellows on an accordion.
Confirming the presence of vermiculite insulation within finished walls is more difficult than is confirming its presence in an unfinished attic. Because it was used as insulation, vermiculite is more likely to be found in the outside walls. Some home owners have tried the following technique: 1) turn off the power to the entire building; 2) remove the covers on the electrical wall sockets; 3) if possible, move the junction boxes out of the way. If that is not possible, then just peer downward into the cut-out, as best as you can, and look for loose vermiculite flakes laying on the floor of the wall space (a flashlight and a small mirror are handy here). If you find even a few flakes, then it is likely that more vermiculite is present between the other wall studs. This is not a fool-proof method for confirming the existence, or the absence, of vermiculite in one's walls. In some cases the vermiculite was not poured around the junction boxes, but it may have been poured into other areas of the same walls. Furthermore, keep in mind that vermiculite might be found in your attic but not in your walls (and visa versa), so be sure to check both areas.
If you observe mica-like flakes in your garden soil, the probability is high that those flakes are vermiculite.
Don't expect to see the asbestos in the insulation or in the garden soil. The tremolite dust that coats the vermiculite flakes is so fine that it is usually invisible to the unaided eye.
How can I safely remove the vermiculite from my house and property?
If you live in Libby, Montana, you're in luck. Libby has been declared a Superfund cleanup site, and the EPA has also declared a Public Health Emergency for the town. EPA will remove the vermiculite from your Libby property for free.
But if you live in another part of the United States, then you will have to pay an EPA-qualified business to remove the vermiculite (see below). And the cost of removal isn't cheap.
Warning: Do not attempt to remove the vermiculite yourself. The removal process can expose the worker to dangerous levels of microscopic tremolite asbestos dust. If done improperly, the removal can contaminate a larger area of your property than was originally contaminated. Only hazardous waste specialists that are trained in vermiculite removal or asbestos removal should decontaminate your property. During the week or so of cleanup, your contaminated property (which might include your house) will be treated as a HAZMAT site. A special dust-control protocol, a special protective suit, and a special breathing apparatus are needed to protect the worker during the cleanup. Hardware store dust masks are ineffective at protecting the wearer.
I live in another part of the country and I have vermiculite insulation in my walls and attic. Why do I have to pay to have my house decontaminated, while Libby, Montana residents get their homes decontaminated free of charge?
The EPA (under the G. W. Bush Administration) was very concerned about declaring a Public Health Emergency for Libby, Montana. The EPA feared that, if they made the declaration, they may set a very expensive legal precedent for the rest of the nation. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper reported that well over a million homes across the nation probably contain the deadly insulation product. In contrast, tiny Libby Montana only has a few thousand buildings, and not all of them are contaminated.
Paul Peronard, EPA's head on-site coordinator for the Libby Superfund site, was quoted in the Oct. 18, 2002 issue of Libby's Western News newspaper, saying, "You have to realize the asbestos issue is far bigger than Libby and [that by declaring a Public Health Emergency regarding vermiculite contamination] you never know what book of worms you will open."
On June 17, 2009, the Obama EPA declared a Public Health Emergency. It appears that the book of worms has been opened. The current Director of the EPA has stated that the declaration only applies to the Libby-Troy area; however, this limitation has not yet been challenged by other communities. If you don't live in Libby, Montana or Troy, Montana, and you believe that there is an inequity as to how vermiculite-contaminated properties are cleaned up across the U.S., and if you believe that the Federal government should pay for the cleanup of all of America's vermiculite-contaminated homes and other buildings, write or call the head of the EPA at:
Director of the EPA
Ariel Rios Building
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20460
And write your congressman, too!
I have heard that the EPA will not remove vermiculite insulation in finished walls of Libby's homes. Is this true?
The EPA will pay only for the removal of vermiculite from unfinished attics in Libby and Troy homes. Contaminated soil will also be removed for free. Because of the enormous costs associated with opening up finished walls, the EPA has decided not to remove vermiculite from the walls of buildings. The EPA will remove vermiculite from walls of Libby and Troy buildings that are undergoing remodeling or demolition; however, the homeowner is still responsible for all of the costs specifically related to remodeling or demolition of the building. The EPA will only pay for the removal of the vermiculite.
[Read a local critique of this EPA policy.]
Why do some sources refer to "Libby's Superfund sites" (plural)?
Libby currently has two totally unrelated on-going Superfund projects: the Vermiculite/Tremolite Superfund project, and a separate groundwater pollution Superfund project. Libby's groundwater is polluted with contaminants created by a former lumber mill. Poisons occuring in dangerous concentrations in Libby's groundwater are pentachlorophenol, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and creosote. All of these contaminants are known carcinogens.
Will Libby ever be completely cleaned of its asbestos contamination?
At a December, 1999 Libby town hall meeting, EPA on-site coordinator Paul Peronard prophetically told the uneasy audience, "I promise you we probably will not find all of it. We will find the vast majority and, depending on what's called for, clean it up or not." (Peacock, 2010, page 158)
Indeed, it is impractical, if not impossible, to remove the poisonous dust from every square inch of Libby and Troy. Since there is currently no federally established "safe" level for airborne tremolite, there is currently no way to know how safe Libby is now, nor how safe a "cleaned" Libby will be in the future. Compounding the problem is that not all of Libby's asbestos was placed there by people. Beginning when the mine opened in the 1920s and continuing up to 1990 when the mine closed, the southern Kootenai River valley had been subjected to a 24-hour per day rain of air-fall settle-out from tremolite dust in airborne concentrations as high as 0.59 microscopic fibers per cubic centimeter of air. When asbestos falls from the air, it does not choose where it falls. It falls everywhere, similar to how volcanic ash is deposited. The only difference is that the trace amounts asbestos in this fallout are invisible to the unaided eye, making it hard to detect in the soil. This 70-year accumulation of wind-deposited asbestos dust can be re-mobilized by winds whenever the soil dries out, or if the soil is ever disturbed by future human activity. Currently, the EPA has no remediation protocol in place to address air-fall contamination in Libby. It would require both the development of a better measurement methodology for contamination in soil and the removal of topsoil from every square inch of the Libby area. This is unfeasible.
The EPA reports that, in its more recent measurements of Libby's airborne tremolite (year 2010), the maximum concentrations either register at a "no detection" level or "right at the detection limit" (quotes that are gleefully repeated by the Libby Area Chamber of Commerce, even though the Chamber doesn't completely understand the scientific meaning of EPA's measurements).
In contrast, the EPA's mood remains restrained. In a February 16, 2010 interview in Libby's Kootenai Valley Record newspaper, EPA toxicologist Dr. David Berry said, "Libby amphibole asbestos will remain at low levels in the Libby valley for a long time."
Mike Cirian, EPA's field project manager for the Libby Asbestos Superfund project, was even more blunt. In a June 14, 2010 radio interview, Cirian said "Some asbestos will remain in Libby forever." (source: Libby In Focus, KJRZ radio, (105.3 FM), June 14, 2010).
The EPA's answer to the cleanup question has remained both consistent and clear since the agency first arrived in town in 1999. Some of W. R. Grace & Co.'s poison will likely remain forever in Libby and its surroundings.