Hawaii warned of
asbestos in homes

A Montana mine sent potentially
dangerous vermiculite to Hawaii

By Helen Altonn

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cautioned consumers who suspect they have asbestos-contaminated vermiculite insulation in their homes not to disturb it.

Hawaii has been identified among states receiving vermiculite from Libby, Mont., where it has been linked to 200 deaths and 750 illnesses.

Federal health officials are trying to determine if ore mined in that area and shipped across the country may have spread potentially fatal asbestos.

Lung cancer and fatal asbestos poisoning rates in Libby are 40 to 60 times higher than would be expected, the Associated Press reported.

The high rates have been blamed on asbestos contamination, caused by breathing in the dust from the vermiculite. W.R. Grace & Co. closed the mine in 1991 after 67 years of operation and is now in bankruptcy.

"We are very concerned about the other sites that have received asbestos-contaminated vermiculite," said Henry Falk, assistant administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

The EPA identified 240 sites in 40 states where vermiculite was shipped from Libby but said it hasn't found asbestos poisoning at those sites similar to what occurred at Libby.

Vicki H. Tsuhako, manager of the EPA-Pacific Islands Office, was trying yesterday to learn more about the situation in Hawaii. Meanwhile, she referred inquiries to the EPA Web site.

The public health crisis at the Montana ore-mining town caused concern about the problem spreading to other towns where vermiculite was shipped to be processed in soil conditioner and home insulation.

At least 22 sites require some kind of EPA-overseen cleanup, Marianne Horinko, assistant administrator of the EPA's Solid Waste and Emergency Response Office, told the Senate Superfund subcommittee Thursday.

They are in New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Minnesota, Colorado, North Dakota, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington.

Horinko told the Senate committee, "We have not found a pattern of asbestos contamination that in any way approaches what we've seen at Libby." However, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., questioned why the sites aren't already designated for Superfund status, as was Libby.

If disturbed, fibers can be inhaled and trapped in the lungs where they may cause diseases developing many years after exposure. Left alone, the particles won't become airborne.

If the material must be removed or disturbed because of renovations, consult an accredited asbestos contractor for tests, information and advice, the EPA advises.

More information on asbestos and health-related information may be obtained on EPA's TSCA Hotline, 1-202-554-1404, or from the EPA asbestos Web site: asbestos

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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