To Remove or Not: Dangerous Asbestos Contaminated Vermiculite

Vermiculite was a common attic insulation product sold from the late 1920s to the early 1990s. It could be purchased locally and could be installed by a contractor or homeowner. Unfortunately, almost all vermiculite insulation contains asbestos and is unsafe when disturbed. Homeowners and buyers often want to know if they should leave the vermiculite undisturbed or have it removed. This article is a guide for all who are connected with the sale or purchase of a home that contains vermiculite insulation.

About the Featured Photo Above

The above photo represents the sad reality that is real for hundreds of residents every year. The homeowner wanted to add recessed can lights so he went into the attic with a shovel and started to remove the insulation. After running wires and installing the lights he became curious about the full bags of Zonolite insulation that were left in the attic decades earlier. You can imagine the horror when he Googled the name and learned that he had just likely exposed himself to many hours of dangerous levels of asbestos fibers. Note as numbered: 1) shovel for moving the insulation 2) electricians draw wire 3) kneeling pad 4) recessed can lights installed and 5) unused bags of Zonolite brand vermiculite attic insulation from the 1960s.

Homeowners could purchase Zonolite brand insulation at the local hardware and supply stores. No warning that the product contained friable amphibole asbestos was indicated on the bag.

The primary concerns with vermiculite in your home are safety, unexpected expenses, resale value, and high heating & cooling costs. While undisturbed vermiculite may not cause an immediate health hazard, one cannot predict when the presence of vermiculite will cause a simple repair or home improvement to become a major expense. This is why few home buyers will close without the seller first remediating the vermiculite attic insulation.

Safety of Home Occupants and Contractors

Asbestos-related diseases are real and television commercials urging those that have been exposed to asbestos to obtain legal advice are common. While billions of dollars have been paid out for asbestos-related health claims, the ZAI Trust settlement exceeds $140 million solely for the removal of vermiculite insulation in U.S. homes. The next time someone tells you vermiculite is not a hazard, ask yourself, “Could $140 million possibly be wrong”? The asbestos found in vermiculite is extremely friable and is the most dangerous type (amphibole) of asbestos. Once vermiculite is disturbed millions of asbestos fibers become airborne. Consider this statement from research titled, “Zonolite Attic Insulation Exposure Studies” where even the suggested method for removal by the manufacturer (Grace) created a very unsafe condition

A typical home inspection report revealing the presence of vermiculite. Most home inspectors identify vermiculite and give the buyer good advice, but not all. See referenced article about home inspection reports and vermiculite.

Resale Value of Your Home:
While undisturbed vermiculite may not cause a health risk, it is really a matter of when not if the vermiculite will get disturbed. Roof leaks, installing recessed can lights, moving walls, renovations, and attic air sealing (see below) are common reasons why vermiculite gets disturbed.

Some misguided contractors claim they can encapsulate vermiculite by blowing additional insulation over it. This is absolutely false as an encapsulation of loose vermiculite can not be achieved by adding cellulose, fiberglass, or even plastic over the top. In fact, these attempts greatly increase the future cost of removing the vermiculite because the new material is in contact with the vermiculite and is now contaminated. As a result, buying a home with vermiculite is buying a liability. And while some buyers may not be concerned about vermiculite, there is a high probability that the next buyer will be. 

With the availability of 55% reimbursement from the ZAI Trust, most realtors and home inspectors are properly identifying vermiculite and informing their clients of the facts related to vermiculite. 

Future Heating and Cooling Costs:

A typical energy savings of over $300 per year for a 1,000 sq-ft ranch that contained 5″ of vermiculite. This is the typical report that is run when a Focus on Energy Trade Ally performs a whole-house energy assessment. The expected annual savings for a 2,000 sq-ft ranch would be closer to $500. 

It actually costs more to leave vermiculite in place, regardless of health and safety. This is because any attic with vermiculite insulation is an inefficient attic that will cost the owner several hundred dollars more per year than the same attic after being updated. The issue is not just replacing the vermiculite with a better type of insulation, such as cellulose. Equally important is the need to “air seal” the attic plane after the vermiculite is removed and before the new insulation is blown in. The step of “air sealing” the attic plane has been a building code requirement for new construction homes for almost 20 years. You simply can’t air seal an attic properly without first removing all of the granules of vermiculite that are covering the attic floor.

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