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Vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral. When heated rapidly to a high temperature, this crystalline mineral expands into low-density, accordion-like strands. In this form, vermiculite is a lightweight, odorless and fire-resistant material that has been used in various applications, such as an insulation material for attics and walls.

Asbestos Contamination

Unfortunately Vermiculite can contains Asbestos which can easily be inhaled because it tends to separate into microscopic particles that become airborne. Exposure to asbestos can result in lung cancer, mesothelioma, inflammation of the chest cavity, and a scarring disease of the lungs known as asbestosis. The risk of contracting these diseases generally increases with the duration and intensity of exposure to asbestos, and smokers may face an even greater risk of lung cancer.

The largest and oldest vermiculite mine was started in the 1920s near Libby, Montana in the United States. Although it was known that the vermiculite there was contaminated with tremolite, a highly toxic form of asbestos, the mine continued to operate until stiffer environmental controls finally forced it to close in 1990. By this time, the asbestos-infused insulator had been installed in thousands of homes across the United States & Canada.

Visual Identification

Vermiculite insulation is a pebble-like or rectangular, chunky product about the size of a pencil eraser, and is usually a shiny gray-brown or silver-gold color. A valuable clue in the identification of contaminated Vermiculite is the presence of empty bags in the attic that bear the name Zonolite®, which was the commercial name for vermiculite mined in the Libby mine.

What is the cost of removing Vermiculite?

A Certified Asbestos Abatement contractor recently gave one my clients an estimate of $14,000 to remove the vermiculite from the attic of a 1400 square foot home in Toronto.

What should be done about asbestos found in homes?

If found in an attic never disturb vermiculite. These products must be airborne to cause a health risk through inhalation, which most likely happens when they are removed or handled. Here are some additional recommendations for clients with vermiculite issues:

  • Two to three cup fulls of the suspect product should be collected & taken to a laboratory for testing to confirm the presence of Asbestos in the product.
  • Only a Certified Asbestos Abatement contractor should be hired to remove Vermiculite.
  • Do not allow children to play in an attic.
  • Do not launder clothing exposed to vermiculite with family clothing.
  • Do not overreact. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA), asbestos-related illnesses are usually the result of high levels of exposure for long periods of time. Left undisturbed in the attic, asbestos is generally not a life-threatening situation. Furthermore, air generally flows into the attic from the house, and not the other way around.
  • Do not use the attic as a storage area.
  • Never use compressed air for cleaning around vermiculite. Avoid dry-sweeping, vacuuming, shoveling, or other dry clean-up methods. Wet methods are best.
  • Seal cracks and holes in attics, such as around light fixtures and ceiling fans, where insulation may pass through.
  • Use proper respiratory protection. Disposable respirators or dust masks are not appropriate for avoiding asbestos exposure.

In summary, vermiculite is a potentially hazardous mineral that was used in the past as an insulation material in buildings, but its dangers can be reduced with some simple precautions.