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Archive for Sunday, July 23, 2000

EPA opens asbestos probe

July 23, 2000

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— The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating why officials ignored for 18 years a study that showed W.R. Grace and Co. was using ore laden with asbestos in insulation and other building products, The New York Times reported Saturday.

The agency shelved a 1982 study that found alarming levels of cancer-causing asbestos in ore that Grace had said included harmless amounts of the material, The Times said it was told by EPA officials. The agency also scuttled follow-up studies and continued to accept the company's lower figures, the officials said.

As a result, Grace, a maker of specialty chemicals and building materials, was allowed to largely avoid government scrutiny and use the ore in products, like fireproofing, that the company promoted as asbestos-free, the newspaper said.

In 1983, an agency official misrepresented the report and downplayed its findings in responding to congressional inquiries about the level of asbestos in the ore, known as vermiculite, the officials told the newspaper.

The report resurfaced after the EPA began an investigation in December into a health crisis at Libby, Mont., where Grace mined vermiculite until 1990. Workers and residents there have died and are dying from lung disease at rates far above the national average.

The report, letters and other records have been sent to the EPA inspector general, who plans to begin an inquiry on Monday, the officials said.

"We don't ask our inspector general to do an investigation lightly," said Steve Johnson, deputy assistant administrator of the office of prevention, pesticides and toxic substances. "We want to know precisely what did happen."

The widely used fireproofing materials, as well as attic insulation and other products, largely remain in thousands of homes and offices. But the health risks are unclear, because it is not known how much asbestos may be present in the products. Grace said it had tried to remove as much asbestos as possible during processing, and contended that the products contained only trace amounts of asbestos.

EPA officials are advising homeowners to call the agency for more information if they are concerned that they may have Grace's loose-fill insulation, known as Zonolite, which it sold until 1984.

On Friday, Grace officials did not dispute the 1982 EPA report, but said their own studies have consistently shown much smaller amounts of asbestos.

Grace has maintained that its products contain only trace amounts of asbestos, far below the 1 percent level at which the EPA restricts its use.

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