Friday, April 07, 2006

Deadly Canadian Homes with Zonolite Attic Insulation


Lurking in the attics and walls of hundreds of thousands of Canadian homes there is a potentially deadly substance-an insulation product with the brand name Zonolite. And it can be a silent killer.

It's made from vermiculite ore that was naturally contaminated with asbestos. In fact, the asbestos found in Zonolite is one of the deadliest forms of asbestos, known as tremolite. If you breathe in the asbestos, its sharp, needle-like fibres can tear into your lungs and can eventually kill you.

Paula Melo was at a loss when she discovered she had Zonolite in her house. She purchased her first home, a quaint bungalow in Mississauga, Ontario, last fall. She planned extensive renovations to turn it into the home of her dreams. Instead, when she found the golden, pellet-like insulation in the attic, her dream turned into a nightmare.

"That was definitely at the point where I just wanted to turn around and say, can I start over again? With a new house? Because if you don't know where it is in your home, you could be walking on it, and it's in your plaster, it's in your attic, how can you feel safe in the house?" she says.

Paula's only option was to have it removed and it cost her more than $10,000 to do that. A highly specialized team of experts dressed in full HAZMAT protective gear were required to remove the asbestos-tainted insulation and make her home a safe place to live.

But health and safety is something Paula didn't want to put a price tag on. She considers herself lucky. She found out how dangerous Zonolite was before it was too late.

"In the general public, there's very little knowledge (of Zonolite). I've spoken to people who've been going through their attics . they have this dust and they wanted to know what it looked like so they could determine whether that was what they had in their attic," she says.

Don Pinchin is an asbestos expert and he's been advising Paula Melo on how to cleanse her home of Zonolite. He has worked with many homeowners who have discovered the asbestos-tainted insulation in their attic. And he says there is very little homeowners can do to protect themselves against the dangers of Zonolite.

"If a homeowner does not know it's there, other than just deciding 'I'm never going in my attic,' . they really can't protect themselves," he explains. "They have to know it's there so that they (can) avoid disturbance. Or they have to know it's there so they (can) opt to remove (it).or, I guess, in an extreme case, they could just opt to move out of the home."

'Safe, Easy To Use Insulation'

Zonolite was made from vermiculite ore that was mined in Libby, Montana, for nearly 70 years. Zonolite was marketed as a safe, easy-to-use insulation -- a do-it-yourselfer's dream. Ads boasted that it was so safe you didn't need any protective gear; and it was so easy to use, even a child could pour it.

But for nearly 30 years, the U.S.-based owner of the mine, W.R. Grace, never revealed that the Libby ore Zonolite was made from was naturally contaminated with asbestos -- a highly carcinogenic form of asbestos that can cause various cancers. Several hundred workers and their families in Libby have already died from the exposure.

Not all vermiculite contains asbestos fibres, but the Libby mine supplied the majority of the world market in vermiculite-based insulation. It was sold predominantly under the name Zonolite, but may have been sold under other brand names. To be safe, if your building has older vermiculite-based insulation, assume it may contain some asbestos and have it professionally tested. Never remove the insulation yourself.

The United States government closed the Libby mine in 1990 and declared it one of the largest environmental disasters in American history.

Lethal Legacy

And that lethal legacy continues in Canada, in communities like Prince George, British Columbia, up in the tiny attic of Tammy Tanner and Pete Stever's home. The attic was the only place they could store their belongings. They're expecting a baby and their 700 square foot home is already a tight squeeze for them and Pete's twelve-year-old daughter, Mykaela. They never imagined that what was in their attic could kill them.

Pete Stever discovered the Zonolite stuffed underneath pink Fiberglas insulation. He also found empty bags of it lying around the attic floor. But he had no idea that it was deadly.

"I didn't realize that it was a dangerous substance, so I didn't really pay attention to it," Pete says.

For almost two years, every time Tammy and Pete went up to the attic, the dust from the Zonolite was released into the air. They breathed it in. It was on their clothing, and it was floating down into the house from the attic hatch.

And although Pete could feel it bothering him he didn't know it could kill him.

"I mean my lungs would start to just feel like they were getting caked with dust and it would just get more and more uncomfortable," Pete says.

When a family member mentioned that Zonolite could be tainted with asbestos, they had the insulation tested. And sure enough, the results came back positive for asbestos.

"I was just like, what am I going to do? We have no space to put anything and this is the only place I've got to put things. I think we avoided going up in the attic after that for a long time," Tammy says.

"The phrase that's gone through my head, you know, is.is our home a death trap?"

And in Standard, Alberta, Carolyn and Curtis Fawcett are asking the same question. The couple bought a tiny bungalow an hour's drive east of Calgary and started renovating. But they had no idea that, during nine years of extensive renovations, asbestos was raining down on them the whole time.

"Really dusty. Really dusty," Carolyn recalls. "Because the first room we ever did was the bathroom, so we totally stripped it. And that wall in particular was full of this Zonolite, . of course we didn't know what it was at that time. So Curt was using a shop vac and shoveling it, and it was dusty but you know, we just figured, well, it's home renovation."

Carolyn and Curtis submitted samples of the Zonolite for testing. The severity of the situation sank in when they got the results back that confirmed the presence of asbestos. They realized their newly transformed home was a place that could eventually make them very sick.

Back in Prince George, Pete and Tammy worry about the same thing. They believe the federal government needs to be more proactive in alerting the public to the dangers of Zonolite.

"I think the first thing the government should be doing is increasing awareness, because there are a lot of people out there who don't know that they should be taking precautions," Pete says.

Fighting for Survival

Rebecca Bruce is a long way from her home in Winnipeg, Manitoba, but she's come to the right place. She is in Detroit to see Dr. Harvey Pass, a thoracic surgeon at Karmanos Cancer Institute, and her ally in battling a rare and deadly form of cancer called mesothelioma, which is caused by exposure to asbestos. Rebecca was exposed to asbestos-tainted Zonolite insulation in the attic of her childhood home-decades ago.

"I had no idea I was being poisoned as I was growing up," she says from her patient housing apartment in Detroit.

She has had one lung removed and is now fighting to stay alive-a daily struggle she unfortunately shares with much of her family. She has already lost two sisters to asbestos-related disease, and five other immediate family members are similarly sick. She and her six brothers and sisters grew up in the same tainted house on Poplar River First Nation reserve-a house built and insulated by the Canadian government.

After her Winnipeg doctor told her the cancer was too advanced for him to operate, she took her treatment into her own hands, and sought out Dr. Pass at Karmanos.

"You could only live maybe eight to twelve months with (radiation and chemotherapy), but if you have surgery, you can live maybe three to seven years. I didn't have (an) option to have surgery there. That is why I ended up in Detroit," she explains. What would have happened to Rebecca if she'd elected to stay in Canada?

"I would have died already," she says. ".But I figured that, since I saw my two sisters passed away, suffering from this disease, I figured out just fight for it, fight for my life."

An Emerging Epidemic

Hundreds of thousands of Canadians could one day find out that what's in their attics is making them sick, too. That's because Zonolite was sold all over Canada for more than two decades, and nobody knew it was tainted with asbestos. Now anyone could be at risk.

Dr. Pass says it takes an aggressive and highly specialized approach to keep patients alive. And it takes the kind of experience victims can't easily find in Canada.

".For a practitioner who doesn't see a lot of (mesotheliomas).who has heard how horrible this disease is-and this is a horrible disease-he's been influenced or she's been influenced so much by this that the party line then becomes: 'it's not a very treatable disease. I can't really help you.'"

And Dr. Pass predicts the incidence of asbestos-related diseases will soon rise. So much so, that he and a colleague, Dr. Michael Harbut, co-founded the National Center for Vermiculite and Asbestos-Related Cancers at Karmanos in April 2004. An internationally recognized expert in the diagnosis and treatment of asbestos-related diseases, Dr. Harbut was one of the first to notice that more people were turning up with diseases related to asbestos exposure. But in many cases, he couldn't figure out how or when they'd been exposed-until now.

"We now know that those people at W.R. Grace lied to us. That they did have asbestos fibres in (the vermiculite insulation) and they distributed it all over North America," he says. W-FIVE asked Dr. Harbut if what was insulating peoples' homes was destroying their lungs:

"Yes," says Dr. Harbut. "Not was destroying their lungs. Is destroying their lungs."

He warns that there will be more victims. Because asbestos-related disease can take up to 30 or 40 years to develop, we may only start to see the results of past exposure now.

"We know that it will (become an epidemic)," he says.

Addressing the Issue

In Canada, the Federal Government may have contributed to the looming epidemic. During the energy crisis in the late 1970s and early 1980s, financial incentives were offered by the government to upgrade home insulation levels through the Canadian Home Insulation Program, or CHIP. Zonolite was on the list of insulation products eligible for grants.

This is the same program under which UFFI, or urea formaldehyde foam insulation, was installed. When the government later found out UFFI was linked to respiratory problems, it paid out $181 million to help Canadians get rid of it. But UFFI isn't nearly as dangerous as Zonolite.

Pat Martin is an NDP Member of Parliament and he's on a mission to get the government to pay for the testing and removal of Zonolite. "I'd strip naked and bark like a dog if I thought that's what it took to get attention to this issue," he says.

Martin says the Federal Government owes it to Canadians to test and remove Zonolite because of the active role the government took in encouraging its use.

"Hundreds of thousands of Canadian homeowners are sitting on a ticking time bomb in terms of their family's health," he says. ".Zonolite contamination is a national disaster on a greater scale than any flood, or hurricane. I think the Federal Government is reeling with shock at the full implication of the scope and breadth of this problem."

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has studied risks to homeowners from exposure to asbestos in vermiculite products, and is planning a larger scale investigation into risks. And in May 2003, the EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) launched a public awareness campaign around best practices for vermiculite attic insulation that may contain asbestos.

In January, 2005, criminal charges were filed in the United States against W.R. Grace and seven of its current or former executives for allegedly concealing information about the dangerous/harmful health effects of the company's vermiculite mining operations.

In Canada, there's an alert on the Health Canada Web site. It says Zonolite insulation could be linked to cancer, but advises it's fine to leave it in your home as long as you don't touch it or disturb it.

But the Department of National Defence considers Zonolite a significant enough threat that they've sealed off the attics in military homes across the country. And it will pay millions of dollars to test homes for Zonolite and eventually have it removed.

W-FIVE asked Minister of Labour and Housing, Joe Fontana, why his department is not giving people money to help Canadians test for Zonolite and get it removed from their homes. Fontana responded:

"You are now asking me to have a national program with regards to replacement of insulation and it's premature to suggest that we need to do that," he says.

Why is the government reluctant to address this problem? W-FIVE speculates: If you do the math, with more than three hundred thousand homes to test and clean up, at a cost of at least $10,000 per home, Ottawa would be on the hook for more than three billion dollars.

Back in Prince George, BC, Tammy Tanner and Pete Stever say they just can't afford the cost of a cleanup. They need help, and they say the government can't put a price tag on peace of mind.

"We just want our house to be safe," says Tanner.

Follow up:

Rebecca Bruce passed away on June 22, 2005 -- a victim mesothelioma, the aggressive form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.

Ironically, Bruce's death came as her sister, Raven Thundersky was being honoured in the Canadian edition of Time Magazine. The magazine named Thundersky one of 12 Canadians heroes -- an honour she was given due to her fight to have those exposed to Zonolite insulation tested for health problems.

"Thundersky, dubbed Manitoba's Erin Brockovich, has become a crusader against Zonolite," declared the magazine in its June 20th edition, in its "second annual list of inspiring and courageous Canadians."

"We honor men and women who in some cases have endured personal tragedy or even physical pain, yet then gone on to inspire others," wrote the Time editors in their introduction.

To date the federal government has stonewalled all calls for action on the Zonolite problem.

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