Monday, April 29, 2002

Company knew of problems with Zonolite insulation

Enquirer staff and news services

        COLUMBUS, Ohio — The producer of a widely used brand of attic insulation knew for more than three decades that it contained asbestos fibers that could sicken and kill people, a newspaper reported Sunday.

        The fibers contaminated ore that was used in Zonolite insulation, which was poured into at least 1 million homes across America from the 1930s to the early 1980s, The Columbus Dispatch said.

        The shiny, pinkish-tan ore known as vermiculite came from a mine in Libby, Mont., a town of 2,600 people where at least 200 miners, family members and residents died of exposure to the fibers.

        The mine is owned by W.R. Grace & Co., of Woburn, Mass. The company and government health and safety agencies knew about the asbestos contamination when Grace bought the Libby mine in 1963, the newspaper said, citing court records and other documents it obtained.

        It said that in 1956, Montana inspectors concluded that asbestos dust at the mine “is of considerable toxicity.” They marked their report “confidential” and limited distribution to mine officials.

        Vermiculite also is found in lawn and garden products, fireproof sprays for steel construction beams, cement mixtures and animal feed.

        Records show that Grace shipped the asbestos-contaminated ore to more than 250 processing plants across the nation, including 18 in Ohio, the newspaper reported.

        The Scotts Co., the nation's largest maker of lawn and garden products, was the largest non-Grace recipient of ore from the Libby mine, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials who have reviewed a database of Grace sales records and shipping invoices.

        Scotts, based in nearby Marysville, used the ore in lawn fertilizers, herbicides and potting soil.

        The Dispatch reported last June that asbestos-contaminated vermiculite contributed to the deaths of at least five workers at the Scotts plant. Tests conducted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the late 1970s found that one in four workers at the plant had lung abnormalities.

        Scotts officials have said they were told by a Grace engineer that the vermiculite was contaminated with asbestos in 1971, nine years before the company said it stopped buying ore from the Libby mine.

        Medical exams conducted by Grace during the 1960s showed that many Libby miners had lung abnormalities consistent with asbestosis, an incurable lung disease caused by exposure to asbestos.

        Maryland Casualty, the company's insurer, advised Grace to keep the test results secret, but also said that failure to respond to concerns of state and federal regulators could be costly.

        “It has even occurred to me that (Grace's) inability to curb the problem ... might be alleged at least to have constituted willful and wanton conduct,” said a Nov. 25, 1967, memo from the insurer to Grace executives.

        Throughout the 1970s, according to internal company memos and letters in court records, Grace executives debated whether consumers should be warned about the asbestos contamination in vermiculite products and decided that affixing warning labels on products would lead to sales losses.

        Medical studies documenting the health hazards posed by airborne asbestos fibers led the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to conclude in 1976 that exposure to the material is unsafe at any level.

        Faced with thousands of lawsuits claiming death or disease caused by exposure to asbestos-contaminated vermiculite, Grace closed the Libby mine in 1990.

        The company declared bankruptcy last April as a class-action lawsuit was being put together on behalf of Americans exposed to Zonolite attic insulation.


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