Me vs. The Attic: Zonolite, the EPA and Asbestos

In our recent remodeling project that I’m starting to refer to as “Project Colonoscopy”, it was determined that in order to provide true beauty in the new kitchen, we’d have to run new wires to the circuit breaker (microwave circuit; dishwasher/disposer circuit) and drill holes in the ceiling for halogen lights. I am not averse to doing either, but I am highly averse to scary, dark and dusty places that hold vast secrets of health problems.

When I first opened the crawl space access hole and peeked up into the attic with my flashlight, I saw a lunar scene of craggy surfaces and limited oxygen. I noticed this flaky, reflective particulate that was covered by the traditional fiberglass insulation. The reflective particulate didn’t look like something that in any way could be helpful to anything. I immediately took cover with Google and began to research this mystery substance.

It’s called, in it’s native form, vermiculite. It’s sold as a gardening aid and, more importantly, was used as a DIY attic insulation solution by millions of homeowners in the U.S. and Canada. Despite the efforts of manufacturers to state the safety of vermiculite, for years, a mine in Montana was the source of vermiculite for a company that sold bags of vermiculite marketed under the name Zonolite. The mine wasn’t closed until 1990. It gets uglier. The EPA, deciding that something must be done, released, in May 2003 a mini-brochure (link goes to page where one could, if one were so inclined, download helpful mini-brochure in the PDF).

All of the literature and helpful websites said, basically, don’t disturb the stuff, and if you do, you are screwed. Ok. Fine. Except that in order to run wires and install lights, I had to disturb the stuff. I took great care in wearing protective everything, including an N100-rated respirator (thanks OSHA) and limited my exposure times.

I don’t know if the product in the attic is, in fact, asbestos-laden, but I don’t want anything harming me or my family. For those of you freaking out because my wife is pregnant, she also wore the exact same type of respirator when anything involving fumes or dust was being performed. We left the house while the floors were refinished, so that the fumes wouldn’t affect her or our baby.

The bigger issue is one that appears to be plaguing the EPA; how to eliminate this huge health threat from the millions of people without causing mass hysteria. Another, less important EPA problem seems to be the recent addition of 1.75 L bottles of Maker’s Mark in Utah Liquor stores.