Public not told about threat from insulation

Monday, February 25, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- The federal government, long aware of possible health risks from an asbestos-containing insulation used in millions of businesses and homes nationwide, has failed to warn the public despite urgings from even those in their own agencies, said a newspaper report.

Eighteen months since an assistant U.S. surgeon general warned that Zonolite-brand insulation "poses a substantial health risk," the public-notification issue remains debated inside the Environmental Protection Agency, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Sunday.

While many at the EPA believe the public must be told of the potential danger, others fear the public would expect the government to pick up what an EPA manager estimates to be a potential cleanup tab exceeding $10 billion, the newspaper said.

Regardless, EPA spokeswoman Bonnie Piper said that while the agency hasn't made specific announcements about Zonolite insulation, the agency's Web site has "practical information for homeowners to learn more about asbestos."

The "EPA is very concerned that homeowners and repair people have the information they need to ensure that their health is protected," she said.

Zonolite came from ore in a former vermiculite mine owned since 1963 by W.R. Grace & Co. in Libby, Mont., a small town where hundreds of miners and relatives have died of asbestos-related diseases.

Vermiculite was sold for use in garden products, fireproofing, cement mixtures and more than a dozen other consumer products. The bulk of the ore was heated until it expanded like popcorn, then marketed as Zonolite insulation.

Natural product

Asbestos, which has been linked to lung cancer and other diseases, is a natural contaminant of vermiculite ore. Grace, which has said there was no proof that Zonolite insulation was dangerous, has settled hundreds of lawsuits claiming death or illness from Zonolite exposure.

In an August 2000 letter requesting help from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health's chief, Dr. Hugh Sloan, an assistant U.S. surgeon general, pressed for the public notification about Zonolite.

Saying "even minimal handling (of the insulation) by workers or residents poses a substantial health risk," Sloan said investigations have shown that such casual handling can generate airborne exposures up to 150 times the asbestos level that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration considered safe for workers.

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