New Warning Made About Asbestos

Tuesday, August 15th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Insulation that was produced from a W.R. Grace & Co. mine in Montana is a danger to workers or homeowners who handle it because of the asbestos it contains, federal health officials say.

The Public Health Service has asked the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to ``look into the current worker exposures that may be dealing with these products and issue an alert if need be,'' Aubrey K. Miller, an official in the health service's Denver region, said Monday.

Testing of Zonolite-brand insulation, along with Grace internal documents, shows that ``even minimal handling by workers or residents poses a substantial health risk,'' the health service said in a recent memorandum to NIOSH.

The risk to homeowners would be small if they leave the insulation alone, said the memo's author, Hugh Sloan, an assistant surgeon general.

``My sense is that homeowners themselves, if that remains undisturbed, shouldn't have any worry,'' Sloan said.

Recent studies show that even casual handling of the insulation can expose workers or homeowners to 150 times the asbestos level considered safe under federal regulations, according to the memo.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer first reported on the memo Monday.

Both the health service and NIOSH are part of the Department of Health and Human Services. A NIOSH official said the agency was reviewing the health service's concerns.

The insulation was used in millions of homes and businesses nationwide.

Officials of Grace, which is based in Columbia, Md., declined immediate comment on the memo.

In a statement on its Web site, however, the company said the insulation was primarily put in older homes and seldom used in new construction. ``We believe now, as we did during the time we sold the product, that there is no unreasonable risk of injury or illness associated with the presence of this insulation in homes,'' the statement said.

Vermiculite from Grace's mine at Libby, Mont., 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.

Asbestos, which has been linked to lung cancer and other diseases, is a natural contaminant of vermiculite ore.

The New York Times reported last month that the Environmental Protection Agency was investigating why officials ignored for 18 years a study that showed Grace was using ore laden with asbestos in insulation and other building products.

The Post-Intelligencer said it had obtained internal documents showing that Grace officials were aware of health risks from asbestos in insulation in the 1970s.

``We believe that a decision to affix asbestos warning labels to our products would result in substantial sales losses,'' company executive vice president E.S. Wood wrote in a 1977 document. ``The risk of liability to customers is heightened by the decision not to label our products.''

Federal investigators are conducting medical tests in the Libby area following reports that hundreds of vermiculite miners and their relatives have died or are dying from asbestos-related diseases. Several lawsuits have been filed on behalf of workers and their families.


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