Mesothelioma risk and asbestos hazards prompt testing in Washington

Due to the recent public health emergency declared in Libby, Montana, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun testing residential yards near a former W.R. Grace & Company insulation factory in Spokane, Washington.

EPA work crews are testing for the presence of asbestos, a toxic mineral associated with the development of malignant pleural mesothelioma. Vermiculite Northwest, which produced Zonolite insulation at the factory, used asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from Libby in their insulation.

Two men wearing hazmat suits and respirators recently collected 30 soil samples from the yard of Kandi Smith, a residence near the site.

“It was kind of embarrassing,” Smith said in reference to the slow car traffic caused by the peculiar appearance of the testing. She wondered if those driving by thought it was a meth lab cleanup.

When the Smith’s bought their home three years ago, they were unaware that the empty lot nearby was the home of Vermiculite Northwest. Regardless of the potential public speculation about the soil samples and EPA crews, Smith said, “If there’s asbestos, we’d rather know.”

Asbestos-contaminated vermiculite in the town of Libby has been responsible for approximately 400 deaths and has caused nearly 2,000 people to develop asbestos-related illnesses.

In 2000 and 2001, EPA crews visited Spokane and sampled soils near the factory only to find trace amounts of asbestos. Because of these results, the area met the EPA’s health standards.

However, asbestos testing has improved since then and recent data from Libby has prompted the EPA to conduct additional tests. The agency’s on-scene coordinator Greg Weigel, said, “Asbestos in the soil can become airborne even at very low levels.”

According to the EPA, older testing methods could detect asbestos at rates of 1 percent in soil samples, but newer testing can detect asbestos at rates of 0.25 percent in soil samples. In the past, soil was considered safe if samples contained less than 1 percent asbestos, but senior EPA investigator Jed Januch says, “That was not a health-based standard.”

The EPA is testing soils at nine homes near the Vermiculite Northwest site and will spend between $900 and $1,400 on analysis for each yard. The results could be ready by late August.

Additional information about mesothelioma and asbestos exposure may be found through the Mesothelioma Center.

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