we hear the word "asbestos" we often think back on the
controversy of the late 1970s when it became common knowledge that asbestos was
indeed a human health hazard. Asbestos however, is still a relevant hazard today in a
number of different capacities. While most asbestos containing products were banned by the
Consumer Product Safety Commission and regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency,
unfortunately it still exists in hundreds of older products as well as in trace amounts in
newly manufactured products. Among new products that may still contain asbestos are soil
retention enhancers, particularly vermiculite.
Vermiculite is mined from natural deposits across the globe and has a
myriad of uses not only for commercial and private gardening, but also as an insulation
compound. Vermiculite forms over millions of years due to the weathering of the mineral,
biotite. Unfortunately, former biotite deposits are often in close proximity to deposits
of diopside, which upon being subjected to the same weathering and age conditions becomes
In Libby, MT one particularly mine shipped hundreds of thousands of
tons of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite across the country. However, they were not the
only manufacturers of vermiculite to ship asbestos with their products. Many other
manufacturers were doing the same thing before EPA testing and regulations finally forced
them to limit the amount of residual asbestos dust in the vermiculite.
Today, most vermiculite is safe. However, that is not to say it cannot
contain asbestos. Vermiculite which is accompanied by a great deal of dust likely has
residual asbestos in its contents and should be used with caution. Current EPA regulations
ban products which contain 1% or more asbestos. Unfortunately even products containing
less that 1% asbestos are still extremely hazardous, particularly when in loose dust form
as vermiculite often is manufactured.
It is no surprise then that hundreds of the Libby mines employees
and residents of the town were diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer
that is known only to be caused by asbestos exposure. Options for mesothelioma treatment are
limited, so many of these residents were able to secure financial compensation for their
families through litigation. Mesothelioma incidence is also known to be high in commercial
gardeners and other occupations which deal with large amounts of loose vermiculite.
Fortunately, exposure to asbestos-contaminated vermiculite can be
avoided if consumers follow simple precautions. Note the appearance of the vermiculite. If
it seems to carry a great deal of residual dust, dispose of it outdoors. Most
manufacturers of vermiculite mark their products packaging with "Non Dusty"
labels. These refined granules are often slightly more expensive but they are certainly