Sunday, December 29, 2002

St. Louis Post-Dispatch -- White House hushed up asbestos peril affecting millions

Are you in Danger?

The Environmental Protection Agency was on the verge of warning millions of Americans that their attics and walls might contain asbestos-contaminated insulation. But, at the last minute, the White House intervened, and the warning has never been issued.

The announcement to warn the public had been expected in April.

It was to have accompanied a declaration by the EPA of a public health emergency in Libby, Mont. In that town near the Canadian border, ore from a vermiculite mine was contaminated with a lethal asbestos fiber called tremolite that has killed or sickened thousands of miners and their families.

Ore from the Libby mine was shipped around the world, and was in insulation called Zonolite that was used in millions of homes, businesses, and schools.

A public health emergency declaration had never been issued by any agency. It would have authorized the removal of the insulation from homes in Libby and provided long-term care for those made sick. Additionally, it would have triggered notification of property owners elsewhere who might be exposed to the insulation.

Zonolite insulation was sold throughout North America from the 1940s through the 1990s. Almost all of the vermiculite used came from the Libby mine, last owned by W. R. Grace & Co.

Interviews and documents show that days before EPA was set to make the declaration, the plan was thwarted by the White House Office of Management and Budget, which had been told of the proposal months earlier.

Both the OMB and the EPA acknowledge that the White House agency was involved, but neither agency would discuss how or why.

Former EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus, who worked for Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, called the decision not to notify homeowners of the dangers posed by Zonolite insulation ''the wrong thing to do.''

''When the government comes across this kind of information and doesn't tell people about it, I just think it's wrong, unconscionable, not to do that,'' he said. ''Your first obligation is to tell the people ... of the possible danger.''

It was the White House budget office's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs that derailed the Libby declaration. The regulatory affairs office is headed by John Graham, who formerly ran the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.

His appointment last year was denounced by environmental, health and public advocacy groups, who claimed his ties to industry were too strong. Graham passes judgment over all major national health, safety and environmental standards.

No one knows precisely how many dwellings are insulated with Zonolite. Memos from the EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry repeatedly cite an estimate of between 15 million and 35 million homes.

In a Feb. 22 memo, the EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics said "the national ramifications are enormous" and estimated that if only 1 million homes have Zonolite "(are) we not put in a position to remove their (insulation) at a national cost of over $10 billion?"

500 people from Libby who are sick and dying from exposure to tremolite.

The EPA's files are filled with studies documenting the toxicity of tremolite, how even minor disruptions of the material by moving boxes, sweeping the floor or doing repairs in attics can generate asbestos fibers.

This also has been confirmed by simulations W.R. Grace ran in Weedsport, N.Y., in July 1977; by 1997 studies by the Canadian Department of National Defense; and by the U.S. Public Health Service, which reported in 2000, that "even minimal handling by workers or residents poses a substantial health risk."

Zonolite insulation has been produced and sold for home and business use for more than half a century. The featherweight, silverish-brown pieces of popcornlike vermiculite are usually the size of a nickel or dime, but some firms have sold pea-size vermiculite.

Here's what government experts say you should do:

If you're a homeowner: Stay away from Zonolite insulation, and leave it alone.

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