EPA & NIOSH Warn Homeowners and Workers about Asbestos Hazard from Vermiculite Insulation

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New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health

Summary Statement

EPA and NIOSH post an official warning that vermiculite insulating material has sufficient asbestos content to pose a health hazard when disturbed.

After a 25-year delay, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have each issued a warning that vermiculite from a mine in Libby, Montana, may be contaminated with enough asbestos to make it extremely hazardous. The contaminated mineral is used as an insulting material in tens of millions of homes and other buildings.

The NIOSH and EPA warnings break with a long-standing U.S. government policy of asserting that the hazard posed by bulk materials contaminated with less than one percent asbestos is too low to require workers to wear respirators for protection from asbestos dust. The new NIOSH recommendation is, "When working with vermiculite that is known or presumed to be contaminated with asbestos, proper respiratory protection should be used." According to the NIOSH warning, "bulk sampling is reliable only when over 1% of the material is asbestos. Negative results from bulk samples can therefore be falsely reassuring when less than 1% of the sample is asbestos. However, disturbing contaminated vermiculite with less than 1% asbestos can still result in hazardous concentrations of airborne asbestos fibers."

The NIOSH recommendation is not an enforceable standard, however. OSHA's policy does not call for respiratory protection when working with a material that is less than one percent asbestos. "To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that a federal agency has stated that a material containing less than one percent asbestos can pose an asbestos hazard that is serious enough to call for respiratory protection" said NYCOSH Executive Director Joel Shufro. "OSHA should follow the lead of NIOSH and EPA and mandate the use of safe work practices and respiratory protection whenever workers disturb vermiculite or any other material that is known to be contaminated by asbestos."

The NIOSH/EPA warning about asbestos-contaminated vermiculite is particularly significant here in New York City," added Shufro, "because the post-9/11 Lower Manhattan contamination was frequently characterized as not being hazardous if it contained less than one percent asbestos. Now EPA and NIOSH agree that asbestos contamination doesn't stop being a health hazard when it is less than one percent. If the EPA is warning homeowners they need to take special precautions with vermiculite that is less than one percent asbestos, they ought to issue the same warning to all workers and residents in Lower Manhattan."

The NIOSH alert concerning asbestos in vermiculite is posted on the Internet at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2003-141/

The EPA alert is posted at http://www.epa.gov/asbestos

-- From the May 27, 2003 NYCOSH Update on Safety and Health