The United States Geology Survey (USGS) scientists found a way to test vermiculite insulation with a handy hand-held gadget that has proven to be invaluable when searching for dangerous asbestos in buildings and homes’ attics.
USGS reports that the new tool, a hand-held spectrometer, will save time and resources for asbestos building inspectors who must send samples of the insulation for inspection to off-site laboratories. The innovative spectrometer allows inspectors a more reliable and easier way to determine if asbestos is present.
“The goal of this USGS study was to find an onsite way to test for asbestos by determining if near-infrared reflectance measurements, using portable spectrometers, could be used to reliably identify the source of vermiculite ore and therefore its potential to contain asbestos,” author Gregg Swayze of USGS. “We achieved this goal.”
The spectrometer can analyze the insulation for asbestos while in the attic of a building, without the need to pull samples and ship them off for testing. Further, a report can then be generated on-site and given to the owner immediately.
The tool can also be used for major home restoration projects. Homes built prior to the mid 1980s should always be tested for asbestos. When asbestos is disturbed during a restoration project, microscopic and odorless asbestos fibers become airborne, and people can easily and ingest or inhale them. When asbestos fibers become stuck in the body, dangerous illnesses can develop.
Although buildings are no longer constructed using vermiculite insulation, USGS reports that around a million homes that were built when asbestos was heavily used still contain the insulation. Vermiculite on its own is considered safe. However, the majority of vermiculate used in the United States hail from Libby, Montana, where it was commercially produced into vermiculite insulation and mixed with traces of amphibole asbestos.
Amphibole asbestos is dangerous to human health and can lead to life-threatening illnesses such as malignant mesothelioma, asbestos-related lung disease, and asbestosis.
“Based on medical studies, there is general agreement that all Libby vermiculite insulation is potentially hazardous,” Swayze continued. “This study demonstrates that spectrally determining the source of attic vermiculite as Libby, provides enough information to make a remediation decision.”
As MLC previously reported, Libby is one of the most notorious asbestos contamination sites in the history of the United States. Libby, a tiny town in Lincoln County, Montana, had vermiculite mining operation for numerous years. Starting from 1919 to 1990, the Libby mine manufactured contaminated asbestos vermiculite that was then shipped throughout the country to be used as insulation in buildings and homes.
Asbestos from the Libby mine was friable, which made it physically harmful. The residents of Libby, along with masses of people across the country, suffered severe adverse health effects. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is still cleaning up the destructive area and the company that ran the site, W.R. Grace, continues to pays who became ill from asbestos exposure.
When the dangers of vermiculite asbestos in Libby were found out, over a thousand asbestos lawsuits were filed against W.R. Grace. The lawsuits came from all types of people, including local residents, employees, and family members who argued the company knew about the risks involved, yet never workers or provide safety equipment or training.
In 2011, a judge awarded a total of 1,300 plaintiffs a $43 million settlement amount, which came about around 10 yers after they filed the lawsuit jointly as a group. In 2017, another judge awarded $25 million in a settlement amount jointly for a group of over 1,000 plaintiffs.
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