If you have ever been involved in gardening, it is likely you have encountered vermiculite, which is often mixed with potting soil in order to “lighten” up the soil, allowing much better water retention.

Vermiculite is also used in insulation materials, and, normally, is not a problem; however, there are issues regarding tainted vermiculite from the Libby, Montana mines, which was used in home insulation.

Libby, Montana, is the site of one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in the nation. The vermiculite mines—which allowed the town of Libby to prosper for decades—have also sickened thousands of residents and killed hundreds.

Although the vermiculite mines closed in 1990, it was not until 1999 when the EPA stepped in and started cleaning up the tainted vermiculite mess.

Allegedly, executives at the W.R Grace & Company, who took over operation of the mines in 1963, were well aware of the mine’s high levels of tremolite asbestos dust, yet failed to warn their employees or the townspeople who used leftover vermiculite for gardens, roads, backyards and playgrounds.

A District Court Judge approved a $43 million settlement for the toxic vermiculite in 2011 to more than 1,300 plaintiffs, with a second major payout coming just this last January– $25 million to more than 1,000 people.

How Does the Tainted Vermiculite of Libby, Montana Affect Others Across the US?

If you are not a resident of Libby, Montana, you may be wondering how this issue could possibly affect you. The answer to that question could lie in your attic.

The most popular vermiculite insulation in the United States was sold under the brand name Zonolite, by W.R. Grace & Co. It is estimated that as much as 70 percent of the vermiculite-containing insulation sold in the U.S. came from the Libby, Montana mines.

The problem with the contaminated vermiculite is so widespread that the EPA now recommends that all vermiculite insulation should be assumed to be contaminated with asbestos. Vermiculite insulation was often poured inside concrete block or wood-framed walls, and spread between attic rafters or under floors.

What to Do if You Find Vermiculite Insulation in Your Home

First and foremost, if you find vermiculite insulation in your home, do not disturb it, as asbestos is only a danger when it becomes airborne. Because there is no firm “cut-off” date for asbestos-contaminated vermiculite insulation, treat all vermiculite insulation as if it contains asbestos.

The EPA recommends that homeowners err on the side of caution, rather than attempting to test their home’s insulation for asbestos, primarily because testing is often both inaccurate and expensive.

If you believe your home’s insulation contains asbestos, it could be better to leave it alone rather than attempt a remediation especially if the insulation is sealed away from the living spaces of your home.

If, however, you are planning on a remodeling project which could potentially stir up the asbestos, it is better to hire a professional asbestos removal contractor.

If you decide to leave the asbestos insulation alone, stay out of the contaminated areas and don’t store anything in areas which are insulated with the tainted vermiculite insulation. Seal off the insulation by using caulk or spray foam around plumbing pipes, light fixtures, fans and switches.

Asbestos Risks

Asbestosis is a lung disease which occurs when a person inhales asbestos fibers. The disease has a slow onset, usually requiring several years of exposure.

The formation of scar-like tissue in the lungs is a character of asbestosis, with shortness of breath being the most common symptom. In some cases, “crackles” can be heard through a stethoscope, and a chest x-ray could show small irregular spots.

Mesothelioma is perhaps the most well-known disease associated with asbestos exposure.

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the linings of the lungs and/or abdominal cavity. Chest and shoulder pain, and a dry cough are hallmarks of mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is rarely seen less than ten years from the time of first exposure, and can occur even 40 years after first exposure.

Asbestos exposure can also cause lung cancer, and while lung cancer caused by asbestos can take years to develop, in fact the changes in the lungs can begin as soon as a person is exposed to asbestos.

Symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • chronic cough
  • chest pain
  • Fever
  • shortness of breath
  • weight loss

The primary thing to know about exposure to asbestos is there is no safe level of exposure.

If you are concerned about your potential exposure to asbestos, it is important to first speak with your doctor and have your health attended to, then to speak to an attorney who specializes in asbestos-related cases.