Senior Public Health Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Nov. 29, 2010) -- Americans living in millions of homes will soon
crawl into their attics to collect their holiday decorations. With those
colorful lights and ornaments could come invisible and deadly asbestos fibers
that decades from now may destroy or end the lives of some of the celebrants.
For years the government has known that the attics and walls of as many as 35 million homes and businesses are insulated with Zonolite, which contains lethal asbestos-tainted vermiculite. Some medical authorities believe that people are still dying because of it.
More than 400 deaths have been attributed to exposure to vermiculite in the community in which it was mined, and a litany of solid scientific studies has shown that it can kill.
Yet AOL News has documented that the government has steadfastly refused even to issue widespread warnings to the public about the dangers of a product that became a popular insulation in the 1940s and continued to be installed in U.S. homes through the 1990s.
The tale of this confirmed killer includes political intrigue, White House intervention, industry meddling and the failure of three Environmental Protection Agency administrators to act on their promises.
When asked what they've done to alert the public, EPA officials repeatedly point to the vermiculite page on the agency's website, which even many inside the agency say is inadequate. W. R. Grace & Co., which produced the vermiculite ore used in the insulation, continues to insist that the insulation is safe and presents no health risk to homeowners.
Zonolite insulation hasn't been sold for years, but experts fear its dangers may be more acute today than ever. They worry about the spread of asbestos contamination in aging homes containing this insulation. And they fear that government-funded plans to weatherize millions of homes will increase the likelihood of exposure among installers and residents.
While the threat exists all year, every year until the Zonolite is removed, experts like Miller believe the potential for exposure to the asbestos is greatest during the holidays.
He and other researchers from the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have learned from homeowners that while they may go up to their attics occasionally during the year, holidays almost always necessitate climbing the attic stairs.
Miller told AOL News that decorations, coils of lights, artificial wreaths and trees may have become the resting place for asbestos-laden dust over the years.
He said he can only imagine how much asbestos has collected in the fake trees and wreaths. But he's worried most about exposure to the younger children.
"It's particularly important to understand the risks for children who have higher breathing rates and will inhale more of the fibers," said Miller, a father of two. "Children, especially young ones, tend to spend much of their time on the floor playing with the ornaments and toys, breathing the asbestos-contaminated dust, and have many years for the asbestos fibers that lodge in their lungs to eventually cause disease."
For decades, the Grace mine, six miles from Libby, was the source of more than 70 percent of the world's vermiculite, and geologists say almost all was heavily contaminated with an exceptionally virulent type of cancer-causing asbestos.
Since 1999, Miller, Chris Weis, who was EPA's lead forensic toxicologist on the Libby team, and many of their colleagues have worked closely with the victims of vermiculite and their survivors. They and other government scientists collected more evidence than they wanted showing that exposure to the asbestos in the insulation can trigger a 20-year or longer path to eventual disease and death for those who disturb and then breathe in the cancer-causing fibers.
They have fought for years to get the government to disclose the risk to home and business owners throughout the country who have no clue that they may be living with a potentially lethal product.
But they were far from alone in calling for highly publicized government warnings. Then and now, union health and safety personnel expressed concern for their members who crawl in and around attics and ceilings doing renovations and stringing telephone, television and Internet cables.
"I am amazed and appalled that nothing has happened," Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, told AOL News last week.
"Given the tremendous government-funded winterization programs, we can expect exposure to workers to increase as they disturb the old asbestos-carrying insulations," he said.
It was at least eight years ago when NYCOSH -- a nonprofit coalition of 200 unions and hundreds of health and safety activists -- first pleaded for the government to pay attention.
"Failure of the government to inform workers and others who may be exposed to this hazard is incorrigible. This is a well-known, aggressive carcinogen and unless people know about it, it's a prescription for death," Shufro said.
Spreading From Libby to the Rest of U.S.
The vermiculite ore pulled from the Grace mine was laced with naturally occurring tremolite, one of the most toxic of six forms of asbestos regulated by the government.
Interviews and medical records showed that asbestos first killed miners and then their wives and children and then others just living in Libby. More than 400 deaths have been blamed on the asbestos-fouled vermiculite. Government medical testing found that more than a thousand more had signs of asbestos-related disease. But that was just among people living in and near that corner of Montana.
The government analyzed invoices and shipping papers of the massive building-products and chemical multinational. It found that Grace shipped by rail and road 15.6 billion pounds of the identical cancer-causing mineral that spawned the carnage in Libby to more than 750 plants and factories throughout North America.
There the flat, silky smooth, raw vermiculite rock went through high-temperature ovens to pop or exfoliate the ore into popcorn-weight fluff that was then bagged and sold by Grace and hundreds of home- and builder-supply outlets as insulation. Sometimes it was used in scores of other products, such as fertilzer, pool lining, garden additives, potting soil enhancers, cat litter and faux ambers for gas fireplaces.
"There are millions, likely tens of millions of homes in the United States probably contaminated with this [lethal] material. The inventories show it was pretty much distributed from coast to coast, most heavily across the tier of Northern states -- New England, the upper Midwest and the Northwest -- and in all likelihood, it's still there," toxicologist Weis said.
Agency statisticians geographically plotted sales of Libby vermiculite and showed it went into homes at least as far south as Jacksonville, Fla., and deep into the northern portions of the Canadian provinces. Sales were highest from Grace's national network of processing plants.
The threat may be even more pressing today because the potential for hazard is increasing as the homes containing this insulation age.
"They're being renovated. New wiring is being put in as the aging wiring becomes unsafe. Internet wiring and cabling is being installed in these attics, as well as exhaust fans and various type of winterization," said Weis, who is now senior toxicologist with the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences.
"All of this activity -- even the most gentle action -- disturbs the asbestos, endangering not only the workers but spreading it though the homes," he added.
But even if the attics are well sealed off from the rest of the house, the EPA and its outside asbestos consultants have found asbestos-contaminated vermiculite dust seeping through wall switches, ceiling-light fixtures and fans and sometimes through the dried-out joint tape in ceilings and walls.
"If I had Zonolite in my house I would want to know it, and if I knew it, I would do everything I could to get it out of there," said Paul Peronard, who headed the EPA's cleanup of Libby.
The Pain From Zonolite
Ten years ago and about 400 miles west of Libby, Robert Parks walked into the EPA laboratory in Manchester, Wash., across Puget Sound from Seattle. He dropped off a jar of insulation from his attic and asked what it was.
Two mornings later, EPA investigator Keven McDermott was crawling over Kraft paper bags marked "Zonolite" and gathered her own sample.
"My lawyer just told me that I might be getting a check soon, and, if I do, I need to figure out whether I'll pay some medical bills or have the attic cleaned," Parks said.
For the next seven years, until she retired, McDermott and her EPA partner, Jed Januch, fielded calls from people who had read a story or heard something on the radio about Zonolite.
"Some just ripped your heart out," McDermott told AOL News. "A young Hispanic man called from Yakima and said that he had recently purchased an older home, and he and his wife had just had a baby.
"After reading articles about Zonolite, he realized that that's what he had in his attic and would find dust drifting from the attic onto the crib of his son.
"He was horrified that he was exposing his child to asbestos, and he didn't have the financial ability to either have it removed or to buy a new house. He was speechless and terrified," McDermott recalled.
"These are people who at least had a clue that something about their insulating was dangerous. What about the millions that have no idea at all?
"Just posting it on the agency's website is not the answer. How can EPA still be keeping this a secret?"
Politics Before Public Health
The EPA should know better.
The agency's consultants wrote detailed reports in 1982 showing that people living or working anywhere near the vermiculite ore that was mined in Libby were exposed to potentially lethal levels of the asbestos fibers that contaminated the ore.
Yet the agency did nothing then to protect the miners, the residents of Libby or the tens of thousands of people exposed to the tons of ore shipped to processing plants around the U.S. andCanada -- a fact that still mortifies many in the EPA.
This was more than 15 years before the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported the devastation caused by the ore being mined from Zonolite Mountain.
Decades later, the EPA again dropped the ball when it followed White House-issued demands that downplayed warnings of the dangers from dust and smoke after the attacks on the Twin Towers. This prompted the agency's own investigators to conclude in a January 2002 internal report: "We cannot delay releasing important public health information."
These lapses in scientific integrity and of putting politics before public health still irk many of the EPA career professionals.
Even more troublesome is the fact that the last three EPA administrators promised to issue warnings about the dangers of this unsafe attic insulation, but nothing happened.
For example, at a town hall meeting in Libby on Sept. 7, 2001, EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman said:
"We want everyone who comes in contact with vermiculite -- from homeowners to handymen -- to have the information to protect themselves and their families.
"We know that this asbestos-containing ore has been shipped almost everywhere. We know its intrinsic hazard. We will get the word out."
Whitman returned to Washington and quickly ordered that a public health emergency be declared and, with it, a nationwide warning on Zonolite insulation be prepared.
Most in the agency agreed that the provisions of the declaration would ensure more vital cleanup money for the contaminated homes in Libby and the needed medical services -- such as oxygen, which many need but cannot afford -- for the thousands sickened by asbestos diseases.
But within EPA headquarters there was strong opposition from a small but vocal group in the agency's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxins, who repeatedly urged that national warning about the dangers of the vermiculite insulation not be made.
In memos and internal correspondence obtained by AOL News, the dissidents called the ramifications "enormous" and said that even if the agency paid for the cleaning of only 1 million homes, it would cost more than $10 billion.
However, no one was calling for EPA to clean these homes, rather to just warn the people who lived in them of the probable danger. Whitman ordered that the announcement move ahead.
May 3, 2003, was the date set for the rollout of what the EPA press office called a "national consumer awareness campaign to provide homeowners with important information on vermiculite attic insulation which may contain asbestos."
News releases had been written, rewritten and written again. Lists of Capitol Hill lawmakers and governors to notify were complied, and all that was left to be decided was whether Whitman would make the announcement from D.C. or Libby.
It was not to happen.
Again, politics entered the picture, and the public health emergency language was stalled, then watered down and ultimately thwarted.
Documents and e-mail between the George W. Bush White House, its Office of Management and Budget and the EPA made it clear that the administration, especially Vice President Dick Cheney, did not want this declaration instituted.
The main reason, the documents showed, was that Cheney was cheerleading, if not orchestrating, the entire congressional effort to pass asbestos tort reform. Tens of thousands of lawsuits being brought against many of America's top corporations sought billions of dollars on behalf of people injured or killed from exposure to asbestos in their products or workplaces.
The law that Cheney supported, if passed, would hamper, if not decimate, the opportunity for injured workers to bring asbestos personal-injury lawsuits against the largest U.S. corporations. These included Grace, the largest automotive and chemical manufacturers, as well as Halliburton, of which Cheney formerly served as chairman and CEO.
At the time, Cheney's office refused to respond to questions the legislation, saying it didn't "comment on internal deliberations."
The bill never passed.
New Administration, Little Change
There is a tendency among some public health activists to blame the failure of EPA to let the public learn the risks they may face on Republicans. But Cheney is long gone and President Barack Obamahas been in office for almost two years, and still the warning hasn't been given.
Just last year, on June 16, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Montana's U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester announced that Libby would finally get the long-awaited public health emergency designation and the asbestos screening, medical treatment and medication that come with it.
It was the first time anywhere in the country that a declaration was made, but the two agency heads paid only passing note of the asbestos-carrying insulation plaguing the rest of the country.
Jackson told a handful of reporters attending the briefing about the dangers that may still be lurking at the nation's hundreds of now-closed vermiculite processing sites where ore from Libby was turned into insulation.
She urged the public to "become educated."
"Just don't disturb it. Treat it like asbestos. We're just asking people to use common sense and protect themselves and their families," the EPA boss told the reporters, without any indication as to how she expected homeowners to know they could be at risk.
And again, an EPA administrator promised to make a massive and immediate effort to warn the public of the hidden hazard.
It has been 17 months since Jackson made that promise, and still there is no sign of anything beyond what's on the EPA's website.
Miller echoes the views of many others worried about the risk, that the people, the home and business owners, who need the information probably don't read the EPA or CDC or National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health websites.
"The need to really get out to places where people congregate and to get them messages in a way that they can understand is crucial and essential in helping them to understand this material, the risks associated for themselves and their lives," said Miller, who is now a senior medical adviser for the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences.
Repeated requests with EPA's press office for an interview with Jackson or anyone else who can explain the agency's refusal to warn the public of the asbestos dangers were refused.
EDITOR'S NOTE: For more than a decade, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Andrew Schneider has followed the saga of the tiny town of Libby, Mont., the asbestos-tainted vermiculite that was mined there and W.R. Grace, the company that shipped the lethal ore throughout the world. Schneider broke the story while with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and followed it in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Baltimore Sun. Schneider and David McCumber authored "An Air That Kills." In this four-part report, AOL News' senior public health reporter examines the government's history of neglect in informing the public about the dangers of a killer that lurks in the attics and walls of millions of homes.