Reporter: Fr d ric
February 7, 2003
U.S.-based W.R. Grace produced Zonolite, a popular insulating
material used in thousands of Canadian homes. Zonolite is the
trademarked name for a product made from the mineral
Vermiculite was called the miracle mineral... once heated, it
expanded and was used for potting soil, fireproofing and home
insulation. It was a very popular product from the 50's to the late
The company says there's nothing to worry about.
Go to the Q and A on
though vermiculite by itself is harmless, the deposit in Libby,
Montana, just across the border from British Columbia, was naturally
contaminated with tremolite... an extremely carcinogenic form of
The Libby mine was once the most important source of vermiculite
in the world. But the mine has been closed since 1990. The site has
been condemned. For decades mine workers were exposed to the
asbestos dust, especially in the mill, where workers say they often
worked in a cloudy haze of airborne particles. The mill spat out
more than two tons of asbestos every day.
|Toxic smoke from
old Libby mine mill
The company provided dust masks but the employees didn't use them
because they would clog up within minutes. Grace also installed
several ventilators in response to requests from the state
The company's spokesman in Libby refused to answer our questions
about workers' exposure to asbestos.
Grace headquarters in Maryland also refused to respond. But over
the phone, a spokesman did say that the dangers of asbestos weren't
well known before the 1970s. And yet, a confidential memo to the
president of the company dated 1969 says "Tremolite asbestos is a
definite health hazard". Grace had more proof that the asbestos was
making their workers sick. During the 1960s the company regularly
x-rayed its employees, and found that more than 90 percent of their
long term employees had lung disease.
"They were warned by the Montana health department in
the 60's. There were astronomical levels of asbestos. There were
areas in the dry mill that had levels of asbestos fibres that you
could develop asbestosis within a couple of weeks of
-lung specialist Dr. Alan
Perley Vatland, who worked at the mill, died from asbestosis. He
had thought heart trouble was the cause of his ill health. But it
wasn't until he consulted doctors outside the town of Libby that he
learned the truth.
daughter of Perley
"He was full of asbestos," says his daughter Gayla, "his heart
was enlarged because of the nitro he had taken and the strain on his
heart but his heart was not the problem. He simply had no lungs. And
he was 61 at the time. He lived until he was 62."
Even more troubling: hundreds of the victims had no contact with
the mine or its employees. They became sick just living in Libby.
There was asbestos dust even on the local high school track. In
fact, secret tests conducted by Grace in the early 1980s found the
risk of contamination was extremely high for the young athletes.
But the deadly dust from Montana did not stay south of the
border: it crossed into at least six provinces in Canada.
DOCUMENT SENT TO W.R. GRACE FROM
VANCOUVER-BASED GRANT INDUSTRIES (DECEMBER 10,
|"There is asbestos in the ore we receive from
I'm afraid that we may still be exposing our
employees to an unnecessary health hazard.
I want to
urge you to put someone on this subject before we get closed
down or slapped with some pretty large claims from employees
or the heirs. It won't take many more biopsy reports before we
F. Hyde and Company in Montreal was processing Zonolite from
Grace. In Ontario, processing plants were set up in St. Thomas, Ajax
and Toronto. In the west, Grant Industries operated plants in
Winnipeg, Regina, Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver.
"This was shipped to sixty main processing plants across the U.S.
and Canada," says Paul Peronard of the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency, "to a total of 240 locations that, at a minimum, you have to
investigate. Is there material there? What is left behind? All of a
sudden, the scope emanating from Libby is huge."
The first signs of trouble with Montana vermiculite in Canada
appeared as early as the mid-1960s. In 1964, Herbert Buchwald
inspected the Zonolite plant in Calgary for the Alberta Department
of Public Health. "What was noticeable of course was the amount of
dust in the air, particularly during the bagging process," he says,
"and the workers were not wearing any respiratory protection." His
study showed seven out of nine workers had respiratory problems.
The danger isn't limited to the processing plants. There was
still asbestos in the insulating end product eventually sold to
consumers. And even though it hasn't been sold since 1984, Zonolite
Insulation is still in the attics of thousands of Canadian
The insulation was easy to use. Consumers could install it
themselves... just open a bag and pour it out. But the instructions
never recommended the use of face masks. And there was no indication
that the product contained asbestos.
"...no evidence of any adverse effects of our
products on consumers...neither can we offer convincing evidence
that they are absolutely safe."
-W.R. Grace confidential
Documents show the Grace company decided not to alarm its
customers, even though it had received a stern warning from the
operator of the plants in western Canada, Grant Industries.
In a document marked Personal and Confidential in 1977 the
company said there was "no evidence of any adverse effects of our
products on consumers". But it goes on to say "neither can we offer
convincing evidence that they are absolutely safe." Grace believed
that putting labels on the product would "result in substantial
sales losses", and they considered it unlikely that consumers could
prove that they had been harmed by exposure to Zonolite.
In the United States, the EPA also conducted tests. It wanted to
evaluate the risk of exposure in homes. "Every time we did anything
that disturbed the insulation," says Peronard, "whether it was
simply storing boxes or something as aggressive as putting a ceiling
fan or cutting a hole, we got all sort of airborne fibers, not only
in the attic space but spread to the rest of the house."
"Nobody really knows for sure whether this is going to be a
severe medical hazard at this point or not," says Dr. Whitehouse,
"it's going to be a while before it's found out." So the risk to
consumer health is not well-known. But while waiting for definitive
results, the EPA recommends that homeowners be very careful.
"If there is no reason to disturb it, don't. If it is butted
away, stay away from it. If you have to do something, remodeling,
plumbing, rewiring work, you should treat it as asbestos containing
material," says Paul Peronard from the EPA.
Health Canada doesn't think it's necessary to warn
homeowners because they recommend consulting professionals before
renovating. The problem is that most professionals have no idea
there's asbestos in Zonolite.
In Ontario and Quebec,
as in many other provinces, there's no health warning about old
Zonolite insulation. A reference used both in Quebec and Manitoba is
the Quebec's Worker's Compensation Board, (CSST) Toxicology Index.
The entry for Zonolite now clearly mentions the risks of asbestos
tremolite contamination. But this notice was added to the index only
hours before our interview with a CSST official.
An electron microscope sample of Zonolite from
barracks at Shilo military base in Manitoba. The sharp,
needle-like fibres are
And yet, the CSST knew about the asbestos problem at Grace's
Montana mine since the late 80's. The Zonolite entry that existed
prior to our interview shows no mention of asbestos. It may be just
an oversight but the CSST knew about the risks and failed to issue a
warning for more than twelve years.
W.R. Grace is now facing a flood of lawsuits related to its
products that contained asbestos. The company filed for bankruptcy
protection in 2001.
More information about
What is vermiculite?
Vermiculite is a volcanic material
compound that expands when it is heated and has the unusual property
of expanding into worm-like or accordion-like pieces. They are
usually the size of a nickel or dime. Vermiculite has been used in
various industries for more than 80 years. It is used in the
construction, agricultural, horticultural and industrial
Where are vermiculite reserves?
Vermiculite is found
throughout the world. Countries that hold commercial vermiculite
mines include Australia, Brazil, Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe and
the United States. The vermiculite commercially available today
comes from deposits that are not considered harmful.
brand of vermiculite is dangerous?
More than 70 per cent 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. According to experts, it's
a very toxic form of asbestos, 10 times as carcinogenic as the more
prevalent chrysotile asbestos. That vermiculite was sold under the
brand name Zonolite Attic Insulation.
How is W.R. Grace Co. involved in this issue?
Grace bought the vermiculite mine in Libby in 1963 from the Zonolite
Company. More than 1.5 billion pounds of raw contaminated ore was
sent to processing plants across Canada. From a third to a half of
the vermiculite from this mine was sold as attic insulation from the
1940s until 1984, when its sale by the company was discontinued.
Was Zonolite widely used?
According to documents from
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), between 15 and 35
million U.S. homes and businesses were insulated with Zonolite.
Documents show about one tenth of the production from Libby was
shipped to Canada. It was even on the list of eligible materials for
the federal government's Canadian Home Insulation Program (CHIP), a
program that offered grants to homeowners from 1977 to the
What if I have Zonolite insulation?
Stay away from it.
If it's left untouched in the attic, there should be minimal or no
risk at all. The asbestos fibres must be airborne to be inhaled.
Each time you breathe asbestos fibres into your lungs, you increase
the chance of developing health problems.
The fibres can become trapped in the lungs and can cause lung
cancer and mesothelioma, a cancer of the lungs' lining. The risk is
linked to exposure. It becomes risky is when you have activities
that bring you up in the attic, like storing boxes, anything that
disturb the material will cause airborne fibres almost
According to the U.S. EPA, there are cases of individuals who got
asbestosis from four or five significant contacts with the
insulation material. Tradesman face a higher risk.
What if I'm renovating?
If you are doing work in the
attic yourself, such as remodeling, plumbing or rewiring, you should
treat Zonolite as asbestos-containing material. You should wear a
proper respirator and change your clothes. You have to make sure the
fibres won't spread it to other areas of your home. It is
recommended to hire a contractor who is properly equipped to work
What should I do if I think I have Zonolite in my
Do not let children play in the area. Do not sweep the
Zonolite or use a normal vacuum cleaner. This will re-circulate the
dangerous fibres, which could linger in the air for days. There are
vacuum cleaners on the market that come with highly sensitive HEPA
filters that will capture the fibres.
insulation looks like vermiculite. How do I know it s Zonolite from
It's impossible to tell just by looking at it. Often,
empty Zonolite kraft paper bags were left in the attic. If the bags
show that ore was processed by WR Grace Canada, Grant Industries or
F. Hyde and Co, the product is probably from Libby and is likely
contaminated. 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, it is suggested that you hire a trained consultant
or contractor to collect the sample and get it analyzed at a
laboratory. There are numerous consulting companies that perform
this kind of asbestos analysis work.
According to Bruce Stewart from Pinchin Environmental in
Mississauga, there should be several samples taken since asbestos
concentration may vary from one vermiculite piece to another. Also,
specialized consultants should be looking for traces of asbestos,
even below 0.1 per cent on a weight-to-weight basis. Normally a
concentration of less than 0.1 per cent is considered safe. But
vermiculite is extremely friable and can release a very high number
of asbestos fibres in the air when disturbed even if the
concentration of asbestos is considered very low.
If there is asbestos in the insulation, should I have it
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.
But if you have a house that needs to be renovated or you use the
attic, you expose yourself every time you go up there and risk
spreading it to the rest of your house. In those circumstances you
are better off removing it says the U.S. EPA. To avoid conflict of
interest, have the insulation tested by one firm and removed by
another. Carefully check the credentials of those you hire.
What do Canadian health authorities have to say?
Canada has not issued any guidelines or warnings to homeowners about
this product yet. There are no official online Canadian sources
about Zonolite, except for a short entry in Quebec Worker's
compensation board (CSST) toxicology database.
Sources: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Pinchin
Environmental, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Radio-Canada