Experts warn of asbestos removal
Dearborn product is in insulation, potting soil
By Hugh McDiarmid, Detroit Free Press, January 22, 2004
The attic above his father's garage was Russell Patterson's childhood playhouse.
Now, at age 47, he fears the Zonolite insulation he frolicked in could kill him.
That attic, like hundreds of thousands in Michigan, contains asbestos-tainted vermiculite insulation, shipped for decades from a mine in Montana to Michigan.
At several factories in Michigan, including one in Dearborn that closed in 1990, vermiculite ore was processed into products including insulation sold under the brand name Zonolite, fireproofing material, and even the vermiculite used in potting soil mix and other gardening uses.
A federal investigation is under way to determine whether people who worked at the factories, and others who were exposed to the products, are at risk.
Patterson, of Troy, dumped the Zonolite by the bagful into the attic when he was about 12 years old, spreading it through the rafters and "literally swimming in it and choking on the dust until I was gagging."
For years afterward, he and friends would spend time in the attic listening to records and horsing around.
Now he has asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs caused by asbestos exposure. He carries portable oxygen bottles with him, and has shortness of breath and pain in his chest -- especially on muggy days and in moldy buildings.
Others with Zonolite in their homes, and people who used the vermiculite in potting soil mix or for gardening and other products also might be at risk, say federal officials. But unless exposures are prolonged or intense, the hazard is low, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It recommends leaving the material alone in most cases.
"There is no safe level of asbestos exposure," said Lon Grossman, a certified asbestos contractor/supervisor who also writes a home care column for the Free Press. "I'd remove it."
Removal, which should be done by a licensed contractor, could cost $10,000 or more, according to Jerrod Mason, president of Protech Environmental Services of Ann Arbor.
Mason, whose company tests vermiculite mailed in by home owners, said
about 1 in 3 samples proves positive for asbestos.