A few years ago, while poking around in an attic space (one of the fifteen hundred or so I've poked around in), I reached into about 12 inches of loose-fill fiberglass insulation on the attic floor. At the very bottom of this insulation, I managed to grab a small handful of what felt like mini pieces of packing foam.
I knew exactly what I grabbed - vermiculite insulation. I then took a few pieces and showed them to my client, who was hanging some pictures on the walls, staging the home.
It was a home inspection for a client who was listing her home. She asked me if I had to include that in the report, since home inspectors don't document hazardous materials.
She's right. Under our home inspection Standards of Practice, we don't look for hazardous materials like asbestos, lead or mold. However, we are required under a Standard of Care to report on things that we are certain to be a particular concern if they are clearly visible to us.
Vermiculite insulation fit this description since it was heavily discussed in the media, and was a big topic of discussion in the real estate community in that particular market.
So my answer was, "Yes, I have to report on it". She wasn't happy about that, but in the end it's a good thing for her. She fully disclosed, and didn't have to worry about getting sued later.
I didn't make a big fuss about it, because I honestly didn't think it was a big deal. But it had been a big enough deal for enough people that I had to make sure for our own company's liability, that it was in fact documented.
So What Is Vermiculite Insulation?
Vermiculite is simply a mineral found in various parts of the world. The insulation itself is about the size of a pencil eraser and earth toned. Because they are light, absorbent and fire resistant, they make for a good insulation material that requires minimal processing after it is mined.
The issue is that in some places where this stuff was mined, it also contained deposits of asbestos, meaning that some of the vermiculite insulation used had been contaminated. In particular, a mine where most of the vermiculite used for insulation was taken in Montana, which was rich in deposits of both vermiculite and asbestos.
Of course we know that asbestos is a carcinogen, and long term exposure can have health consequences. They were sold under many brands, of which Zonolite™ was the most popular.
Where And When Was It Used?
Vermiculite insulation was used heavily in homes between the 1950s to 1970s. In Canada, it was primarily used as part of a government insulation program from the mid 70s to mid 80s.
This provided grants to homeowners as an incentive to reduce energy consumption in response to the energy crises of the 70s.
Should You Be Concerned?
If you have vermiculite insulation in your attic, should you be concerned?
It depends. First thing to know is that vermiculite itself is not asbestos. If it has not been contaminated with asbestos, it's entirely fine. The only way to know is to take samples and get it lab tested. It's roughly a 50/50 chance according to some labs. (1)
Secondly, as with most potentially hazardous materials in a home, it usually isn't an issue if it remains undisturbed (with the exception of mold and radon perhaps). With vermiculite in the attic, unless you're rummaging around in there, or if you open holes into your ceiling for pot lights, it's probably not an issue. And don't use the attic for storage either.
Lastly, there's not enough evidence on the correlation of this stuff (even if it does contain asbestos) and its effects on occupants when sealed in an attic space.
But remember, absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence (clever huh? I stole that from somewhere). So you might want to play it safe.(2)
What Should You Do?
This is a tough one, and really depends on your tolerance for potential risk. For example, some people don't mind living near hydro towers, while other would rather avoid them just in case.
In the case of vermiculite insulation, the options are:
1. Do nothing
2. Get it tested for asbestos
3. Do proper asbestos abatement (can be upwards of $10,000)
Don't take care of it yourself with a dust mask and a Shop-Vac™, nor should you call the 1-800 junk guys to remove it. Only an asbestos abatement company should handle any removals.
The Issue With Issues
The real concern with potentially hazardous materials in homes, especially older ones, is the stigma associated with them.
Even if you personally had no concerns about the materials themselves (maybe because you grew up in an older house with old radiator pipes wrapped in asbestos), chances are someone else might. And this is something you have to consider when when eventually selling the house.
This is particularly true if the media has sensationalized a story about the issue, as has occurred with vermiculite.(3)
Take for example UFFI (Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation). There is a lot of controversy surrounding whether or not the stigma associated with UFFI is warranted. As a matter of fact, this material was never banned in Europe and is actually still being used. However, every homeowner listing their house needs to disclose to presence of UFFI, and this definitely negatively affects the perception of safety in the home.(4)
Perspective Is Key
With older houses, perspective is key. Up until the 1980s, you might be able to find asbestos in a myriad of home components. Some of these included(5):
- Vinyl floor tiles
- Certain types of window caulking
- Heating ducts and radiator pipes
- Siding materials
The list goes on. But the important thing to note is that the concern is really with disruption and demolition of the material. It's typically not a concern if it's not disturbed.
Even in new homes, there are concerns about VOCs (volatile organic compounds). These are chemical byproducts that "off-gas" from new materials such as carpets, particle boards, insulation and paint, etc.(5)
Your Own Comfort Level
At the end of the day, it comes down to your own comfort level. You can't eliminate all the risks, but we can mitigate and reduce exposure to things that are harmful.
If you're buying a house with potentially hazardous materials, it's also worth considering what the stigma is associated with the home if it comes time to sell.
If you're not concerned about that, and you're comfortable with the potential risk, then you're good.
Just make sure Johnny doesn't practice his awesome slap shot in the boiler room next to radiator pipes wrapped in asbestos insulation.
Thanks for reading! Do you have any scary materials in your property that you'd like the share? Comment below.