Vermiculite turns toxic

Most people know vermiculite as that foam-like mineral that gets mixed into potting soil or poured into attic spaces as lightweight insulating pebbles. Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry issued a joint warning about vermiculite: If it’s a decade or more old, it may be laced with asbestos, a potent lung carcinogen.

The federal agencies report that most U.S. vermiculite mined prior to 1990 came from a site near Libby, Mont., where a natural asbestos deposit ran through the mine, tainting much of the vermiculite.

Based on just-released data from a study conducted 2 years ago in six Vermont homes with vermiculite insulation, EPA reports that “the asbestos content of the vermiculite was as high as 2 percent in bulk samples . . . yet asbestos was not detected in the air or dust.”

What led to the federal warning were the results of additional tests, such as a simulation of a homeowner wiring a ceiling fan located underneath vermiculate insulation. Such activities released small amounts of asbestos.

“Any disturbance has the potential to release asbestos fibers into the air,” according to the EPA report released on May 21.

EPA advises people who have vermiculite insulation of unknown age in their homes to assume it’s contaminated and not touch it. The agency recommends that these homeowners keep their attic visits to a minimum, store nothing near the vermiculite, and hire professionals if they want to remove the insulation. Because vermiculite may sift through cracks in the ceiling, especially around light fixtures and ceiling fans, EPA recommends caulking any holes.


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Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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