It’s a lifesaving law, but many say it’s still a pipe dream.
Public health officials say the long-awaited addition of asbestos to the government’s recently released list of most dangerous chemicals will save lives, especially people across the country who are living with lethal fibers dug from a Montana mine.
Others believe the decades-long record of ignoring the health hazard of this ancient mineral will continue unabated — which doesn’t go over well with many who have studied the killing ability of the Montana mine.
Before the Trump administration’s gag order last week on the Environmental Protection Agency, a senior spokesperson said that even though extensive, peer-reviewed studies confirmed the significant danger of asbestos-coated Zonolite insulation, the EPA has three years to take action.
Linda Reinstein, the CEO and president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, called it "inexcusable that EPA is willing to wait years before telling homeowners they’re at risk of exposure to deadly Zonolite."
"There’s no reason to wait," Reinstein said. "We’ve known the facts about the asbestos-contaminated wall and attic insulation for decades. The time is now for the EPA to warn an estimated 30 million homeowners about the asbestos in their attics. The longer they wait, the more people will get sick and die from preventable diseases. As a mesothelioma widow, I know the pain; I buried my husband.”
The legislation at the heart of the wishful thinking is the historic revision of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), first passed in 1976. It was crafted to control the production, importation, use, and disposal of more than 83,000 chemicals in the government’s inventory.
The regulation was the subject of endless corporate lobbying and congressional debate and ultimately accomplished little.
"In the law’s 40-year history, only a handful of the tens of thousands of chemicals on the market when the law passed have ever been reviewed for health impacts, and only five have ever been banned,” EPA’s former Administrator Gina McCarthy recalled when former President Barack Obama signed the bill last June.
Finally, on Nov. 29, the EPA announced the first 10 chemicals it will evaluate for potential risks to human health and the environment under the new TSCA, formally named the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act.
The mica-like Libby, Montana, vermiculite — usually marketed as Zonolite — was heavily tainted with asbestos, which permeated the mine. At hundreds of Grace processing plants throughout the country, clouds of the deadly fibers were spewed into the air in communities where the Montana ore was transformed into wall and attic insulation and also gardening and other home products.
When asbestos was added to the list, Lee Newspapers asked the EPA when it will attempt to warn tens of millions of home and business owners likely living with insulation made from asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from Libby.
“It’s too early to say what the result will be and what action EPA will take. TSCA requires these chemical risk evaluations be completed within three years,” said a senior EPA spokesperson.
It’s not as if the dangers from exposure to Zonolite insulation have not been proven time and time again. For decades, Grace’s own scientists and then others from federal health agencies documented the hazard of breathing the invisible fibers which can cause incurable respiratory diseases and mesothelioma and lung, laryngeal, colorectal, and ovarian cancers.
According to death certificates, interviews with survivors, and studies by the Centers for Disease Control and the EPA in 1999 and 2000, more than 480 deaths in Libby and its surrounding county were attributed to asbestos exposure. Those with symptoms of various forms of asbestos-related diseases totaled more than 8,000. Many health experts believe that nationally — especially including Zonolite processing plants — the the body count from exposure to Montana vermiculite ore is 10 to 30 times greater, but those figures have not been confirmed.
More recently, extensive studies have been done by Drs. James Lockey and Alan Whitehouse, both leaders in occupational, environmental, and pulmonary medicine. Their research, done independently, showed the most infinitesimal exposure to Libby asbestos can cause illness and death.
The peril of exposure to Zonolite was further proven by Jean Pfau, an immunologist at Montana State University in Bozeman.
Pfau’s groundbreaking work with colleagues at the University of Montana in Missoula repeatedly showed that an alarming number of cases of autoimmune disease including lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and systemic sclerosis are related to asbestos exposure.
There is wide agreement among federal health experts that the research done by Lockey, Pfau, and Whitehouse is solid and needs not be repeated before EPA finally takes action.
“The new law says EPA has up to three years to study its top ten picks, but it surely doesn't mean they need to take three years,” said Dr. Celeste Monforton, a top public health researcher from the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University and a lecturer at Texas State University.
“Asbestos is one chemical for which the evidence of harm is overwhelming and there's no compelling need for more study. An EPA warning about Zonolite contaminated asbestos is long overdue and well within EPA's authority.”
Trump praises asbestos
Federal health agencies have mostly ignored the well-documented risk from asbestos-containing products for years, regardless who sat in the Oval Office.
Trump has often said that the danger of asbestos is overblown. Aside from his pro-business, anti-environment cabinet appointments, the 45th president brought with him a well-documented history of defending asbestos as safe.
Testifying as a New York landlord and developer, Trump touted the safety of the "miracle fiber" to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management on July 21, 2005.
He hammered home his belief in numerous speeches, tweets, and in his 1997 book "The Art of Making a Comeback."
“I believe that the movement against asbestos was led by the mob, because it was often mob-related companies that would do the asbestos removal,” Trump wrote in that book. “Great pressure was put on politicians, and as usual, the politicians relented. Millions of truckloads of this incredible fire-proofing material were taken to special ‘dump sites’ and asbestos was replaced by materials that were supposedly safe but couldn't hold a candle to asbestos in limiting the ravages of fire.”
However, the Centers for Disease Control and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration insist that there is no safe level of exposure to any asbestos fiber.
Expressing concern about Trump’s defense of asbestos and the disdain his nominee to head the EPA has for the agency's laws, Monforton said it was irresponsible for EPA to not issue a warning before the change of administration.
Jim Lockey conducted an extensive occupational health study spanning three decades on the same cohort of workers from the O.M. Scott factory in Marysville, Ohio, who had been exposed to Libby vermiculite used in the company’s lawn products.
Lockey, a physician and professor of occupational, environmental, and pulmonary medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, found by repeatedly testing the same surviving workers that the mineral from the Grace mine in Libby sickens and kills at lower and shorter exposures than anyone believed possible.
“People are touching this stuff all the time. They drill a hole in the ceiling or they rip a wall out. An electrician strings new wiring through a wall to put up additional outlets or cables, or the attic, walls or floor joists are packed with Zonolite,” said Lockey.
“Where it's used in home insulation should be identified. The home owners should be warned that it's in the air, and they should keep it isolated and avoid moving it at all.”
Dr. Aubrey Miller shares Lockey’s concern on the danger to residents and workers.
“Tens if not hundreds of thousands of remodelers, installers, and cable workers throughout the nation go into attics that have exceedingly high exposures and ones that could easily result in disease from contamination. Of course, the same dangers face the residents of those homes,” said Miller, the senior medical adviser to the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the first government physician to arrive in Libby in 1999.
He also expresses concern that without publicizing the potential hazards, physicians will not know enough to properly question their patients about asbestos exposure, and “a lot of lives may be lost throughout the country.”
“Doctors need to know that there is reason to ask their patients about exposure to asbestos, and if patients don’t know they’ve been exposed, the results could be fatal.”
Even those trained in hazardous substances might not recognize the danger of Zonolite.
A couple of years ago, Lockey said he was invited to a dinner at the home of a toxicologist friend whose house was being remodeled. In the middle of one of the rooms being redone was an uncovered pile of Zonolite insulation that had been pulled from the ceiling.
Some property owners are fortunate enough to recognize the danger from Zonolite.
Gerald Mueller was buying an old two-room cabin at Georgetown Lake near Philipsburg. He became cautious when he saw a “popcorn” ceiling, often a sure signal of asbestos. Then he discovered that the attic over the two rooms was insulated with vermiculite from Libby.
“Because of my background, I knew that I didn't want that stuff up there. I was willing to have tests done to determine the asbestos content, but EPA's guidance was, if it was that kind of insulation, you don't need to test it — you just get rid of it,” said Mueller, who had spent almost 30 years moderating groups dealing with natural resource issues, including 10 years with Montana’s governor’s office.
Knowing the latency period — the time from exposure to asbestos to the first signs of illness — Mueller said he was worried about the risk to himself, and also, “I don't want my grandkids up there.”
Mueller was very familiar with Zonolite. For 10 years, under contract to EPA and commuting from Missoula, he ran and reported on the meetings of Libby’s Community Advisory Group. His role was to "create a safe place for EPA and the Libby community to communicate about the cleanup."
“In some ways it was the most significant work that I was involved in. Nothing else that I've done involved basically life-and-death issues,” he said and noted with sadness that some members of his group had died from asbestos-related disease during his tenure.
Mueller said the need to notify unsuspecting homeowners “is critical.”
“We can't make up for the damage that was done by past government failures with this material, but we should do everything in our power going forward so that people don't suffer again because of this.”
He said he saw maps of where the Zonolite was shipped from Libby for processing and distribution.
“It's still out there. It’s all over the country,” said Muelller.
“I don't know whether the Trump administration will do this or not, but they should make every effort to find out where it is and warn people what they’re dealing with.”
Public was almost warned
The decision not to warn citizens of the potential danger can't entirely be blamed on politics, as EPA administrators from both parties did nothing despite often fervent urging by public health experts in their agencies.
EPA documents show that career bureaucrats urged their political appointees that no significant public warning be issued. They feared the agency could get stuck with a cleanup bill for the contaminated homes of between $60 billion and $80 billion.
Experts within the EPA and the public health community who were on the front lines in Libby and at Grace vermiculite processing plants were not urging a decontamination of any kind. All they wanted then and now was for the public who may be at risk to be told so they could make their own decisions on their family’s safety.
The one exception who openly called for a public warning was Christine Todd Whitman, who headed the EPA under President George W. Bush. In 2001, she had buckled under enormous White House pressure to downplay the debilitating breathing hazard confronting residents of Manhattan and nearby New Jersey from the collapsed Twin Towers, which government scientists called as caustic as drain cleaner. However, Whitman stood strong when it came to danger from the huge pit mine in Libby.
She listened as EPA health and safety experts anguished over the millions of home and business owners throughout the country that Grace sales records said may be living with lethal asbestos fibers contaminating the vermiculite insulation where they lived and worked.
She approved a 14-page detailed “rollout plan” for warning the public of the hazard in the Zonolite. She and other top agency officials would go on morning TV shows, talk radio outlets, and public service announcements in large and small newspapers and all the major home-improvement and hardware chains.
The rollout was to be unleashed June 27, 2003. It never happened. Instead, that morning, it was announced that Whitman had resigned.