Hand-held Device Quickly Determines Asbestos Contaminants in Vermiculite Insulation

The United States Geological Survey (USGS )scientists have developed a new time-saving technique for determining if vermiculite insulation contains traces of asbestos. Vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral that expands when heated – as much as 8-30 times its original size – is light-weight, heat resistant, and like asbestos, has been used in numerous products. Vermiculite itself is not a carcinogen, but is known to contain traces of asbestos, specifically tremolite, one of the more dangerous types of asbestos because its fibers are typically smaller and sharper.

Between 1919 and 1990, 70 percent of vermiculite sold in the United States came from a mine near a small town in Libby, Montana. Used in a variety of materials – most notably Zonolite insulation – the vermiculite mined contained trace amounts of asbestos, and decades of mining exposed miners and residents of the small town to vast amounts of asbestos dust. The microscopic fibers contaminated not only the air, but the dust, soil, water, and even animal and fish tissue throughout the town. Corporate giant and mine owner W.R. Grace knew about the health hazard plaguing the small town, but remained silent, putting profits above workers’ health. The mine officially closed in 1990, but the effects of asbestos exposure from the mining industry continue today, with millions of homes estimated to contain the Zonolite attic insulation that was produced for decades by W.R. Grace.

Testing your home for asbestos can be a time-consuming task. Suspect materials are often taken to a laboratory off-site to be tested, with results taking up to a week or more. Now, the USGS is proud to announce a new technique that can detect the presence of asbestos in vermiculite in a matter of moments, using a portable spectrometer.

Spectrometers take light and break it into a “spectrum” of colors where the wavelengths analyzed can identify atoms and eventually measure samples of chemical chains and their reactions.  A team of researchers and scientists from the USGS gathered and investigated 52 samples of expanded vermiculite from all over the world and found that all of two dozen samples taken from Libby, MT, contained asbestos. Samples from other locations contained little to no asbestos. Spectrometry confirmed the contaminated vermiculite samples originated from Libby, MT.

The portable spectrometers can analyze the vermiculite attic insulation on-site, which allows for reports to be immediately generated and given to the owner. However, these hand-held devices do not come cheap, with most costing around $50,000.

At Goldberg, Persky & White, P.C., we understand that companies who knew about the dangers of asbestos exposure, such as W.R. Grace, were putting the company’s profits above their worker’s health.  While asbestos today is heavily regulated and many of these corrupt companies are now bankrupt, the lasting effects of asbestos exposure continue to plague hardworking individuals and their families. If you are seeking a lawyer for your mesothelioma lawsuit, learn more about our law firm’s asbestos experience, our mesothelioma attorneys, or our Ask an Asbestos Attorney for answers to common questions. Contact us directly for more information.

Heidi Koontz, “USGS Scientists Develop New Tool to Determine if Vermiculite Insulation Contains Asbestos,” United States Geological Survey (April 5, 2018). [Link]


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