The Air Up There
Hank Investigates: The Air Up There
"I've been thinking about it all the time I was in here..."
Back in the 70's, this Massachusetts homeowner bought dozens of bags of Zonolite attic insulation and poured them into place. But that may have been a bad decision. Turns out the insulation, made of a mineral called vermiculite, may also contain highly hazardous asbestos.
"I was totally blindsided by it."
And our investigation found that same contaminated insulation may be in millions of attics and millions of homeowners have no idea they may be exposed.
Dr. Alan Whitehouse, Pulmonary Expert
"I think there is a health hazard out there that people don't know about. "
The hazard started decades ago at WR Grace's Libby Montana vermiculite mine. The mineral was sent to insulation processing plants nationwide, including this one in Easthampton, Mass. Then they found out much of the mine was contaminated with asbestos. Hundreds of Libby miners got sick -- many died.
Bob Wilkens, Montana Miner
"They're killing us."
Now homeowners are wondering, what if it’s in my attic? The feds are also asking just how dangerous is the air up there?
Wayne Toland, EPA
"We need to know whether or not we've got a significant asbestos contamination problem. We suspect that's true, certainly based on all the data we have available today."
Internal documents we obtained dated 1977 prove WR Grace has known there was problem for years. This memo calculated liability for the asbestos, predicted losses if a warning label were added and decided not to tell consumers unless they asked. It sold the product until 1984. And ads for Zonolite that we found promise "no harmful chemicals."
Wayne Toland, EPA
"It was heavily marketed here in New England."
Experts say, since asbestos is harmful when you breathe the dust, the insulation is less a threat if it's not disturbed.
But this demonstration used in a court case shows how much gets in the air when it is disturbed, what could happen during wiring, or rehab, or just pulling out Christmas Decorations. That's why Don is worrying. When he renovated his dining room, he was covered with Zonolite insulation falling from the attic above.
"Do you someone should have told you?"
"Sure, yes. If there’s a potential health problem, I'd rather know that and deal with it."
And now pulmonary experts, who have treated asbestos disease, say they're seeing patients whose x-rays show asbestos damage from their attic insulation.
Dr. Alan Whitehouse
"I think people have a right to know about the hazards that they may face."
Why don't they know? Though EPA points to this vermiculite "fact sheet" on its web site, unlike lead paint and radon gas, there has been no national education campaign.
"People we talked to said, how are we supposed to know to go to their web site?
Wayne Toland, EPA
"Well that's a real good question. Clearly the EPA's goal is the safety and education of the public."
We have learned the EPA is right now formulating a national action plan, but memos we obtained reveal they've been talking about it for more years. Some D.C. lawmakers say the feds should move faster.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington
"Everyday that goes by they are threatening the lives of Americans by not moving forward with this."
Dozens of homeowners are suing WR Grace. Their class action alleges since Grace knew the insulation was dangerous, they should pay to remove it.
Darrell Scott, Class Action Attorney
"This is a company that rolled the dice, knew there would be consequences if they got caught, and got caught."
Grace officials say there's no reason for them to pay to have the insulation removed. The company sent this 2002 letter to the EPA insisting there is "no credible reason to believe Zonolite has ever caused an asbestos-related disease in anyone who has used it in his/her home."
Bill Corcoran, WR Grace (by phone)
"We've talked to EPA a number of times about this product, we've talked to them about the research they're doing, and we continue to believe the product is safe."
Grace has now has filed for bankruptcy, putting the homeowners’ lawsuit on hold.
Darrell Scott, Class Action Atty.
"The company has an interest in keeping the topic as quiet as possible."
So what is the real danger? How many victims are there? What's the solution? And the big question from worried homeowners…
"who's going to step up to the plate?"
"And right now?"
"Right now nobody."
We have learned the EPA is in the final stages of a health study, which may reveal the extent of danger for homeowners.
For more information on Zonolite Attic Insulation:
EPA - Environmental Protection Association - Fact Sheet on Vermiculite Insulation:
General information about asbestos and your health:
WR Grace website about Zonolite Insulation:
U.S. Senator Patty Murray web site regarding asbestos: