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 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.

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

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The XXX primary concerns are safety, resale value, and future heating & cooling costs. While undisturbed vermiculite may not cause a 

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 advise 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.

Research demonstrating the dangers associated with disturbing vermiculite

“The results of sampling during the two methods of moving aside ZAI demonstrated that neither method effectively controls the generation of amphibole asbestos dust. Evaluation of the Grace method found the worker exposure to be 3100 times the levels in the background measurements, and analytical results of the homeowner method indicated the worker exposure to be 4300 times the levels in the background measurements.” (Ewing, et al. – Int. J Occup Environ Health 2010;16:279–290)

This research was presented during the legal challenge that resulted in the ZAI Trust settlement. Everyone should agree that disturbing vermiculite can create safety issues and should only be performed by a licensed asbestos abatement contractor. Even then, the vermiculite should only be removed by vacuum method. Shoveling and bagging vermiculite should always be avoided because it unnecessarily introduces vast amounts of asbestos fiber into the air.

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 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 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 the 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 on the facts related to vermiculite. 

Future Heating and Cooling Costs:

A typical energy savings of over $200 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 $400. 

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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