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  • Writer's pictureKevin Maxwell

Understanding the Potential Dangers of Vermiculite Insulation.


There is no denying the amount of attention asbestos has received in the past several years. Whether flipping through a magazine, surfing the internet, or browsing TV channels, it’s quite likely you will find tips on where to get help if you or a loved one has been exposed to the toxic forms of asbestos.

Older homes and buildings that were built before the 1980s will likely have some form of asbestos material, as it was routinely used in adhesives, flooring, shingles, walls, and insulation.While it is good to be aware of the various materials and dangers, it’s even more important to know what to look for, especially when it comes to insulation.

Generally, asbestos doesn’t become a health risk unless the fibers become airborne and enter the respiratory or digestive systems. This is what typically happens when the motivated do-it-yourself unknowingly begin handling asbestos materials. It’s rather difficult to identify asbestos by looking at it, as most materials require professional testing to determine if asbestos is present. The one exception to this is being familiar with the different types of insulation used in attics. Here, we will share tips on how to conduct your own simple visual inspection of attic insulation. However, it’s extremely important to maintain this hands-off approach, should you have any suspicion of asbestos being present.

How to Identify the Type of Insulation in Your Attic

Overall, just because the attic of an older home has exposed insulation, doesn’t mean it contains asbestos. The same holds true for walls. For instance, insulation is usually in the form of rolls, blankets, or loose-fill. The rolls will probably be made up of fiberglass, cellulose, or other non-toxic materials. On the other hand, the loose-fill versions are more likely to contain asbestos.

Loose-fill insulation has a fluffy or pebble-like appearance and is often sprayed or blown into the wall and ceiling cavities. Once you’ve determined that you have loose-fill insulation, the next step is to identify whether it is vermiculite, rock wool, cellulose, or fiberglass.

Here’s what you should look for:

  • Vermiculite Insulation:Statistics indicate that 70% of the homes built between 1930 and 1980 were insulated with asbestos based vermiculite. Vermiculite insulation has a shiny silver, gray, or brown tone to it and is pebble shaped. This is the one to be cautious of as it probably contains asbestos, a raw form of the rock-like mineral, silica.

  • Cellulose Insulation: Cellulite insulation also has a gray color, but there is no visible sheen. This type of insulation is available in sheets or batt form, as well as loose-fill. The loose-fill version resembles shredded paper and for the most part, contains no minerals, is made of recycled paper, and is safe to handle.

  • Fiberglass Insulation: Fiberglass is another type of insulation that is available in both sheet and loose-fill form. It has a fluffy appearance, is soft to the touch, and is usually white or pink in color. It’s best to wear protective gear when handling fiberglass because while the physical effects are short-lived, the small fiberglass particles can cause respiratory and skin irritation.

  • Rock Wool Insulation:As the name indicates, rock wool insulation is mineral based, derived from dolomite and basaltic rock. It is used in both sheet and loose-fill forms, with the loose-fill form having a soft cotton texture and brown, gray, or white toned. Similar to fiberglass insulation, it should be handled with care to avoid the discomfort of possible irritation.

Understanding the Danger of Vermiculite

Vermiculite can look completely harmless and unfortunately, some of the information available online can be misleading. For instance, the EPA based their data on the Zonolite brand of vermiculite insulation, which was said to contain less than 1% of asbestos. However, in 2008, independent research exposed the truth about Zonolite during a class-action lawsuit. This research revealed that small amounts of the most toxic form of asbestos, amphibole were present. Why is that important? The use of amphibole asbestos was strictly reduced more than 40 years ago, when it was determined that the long straight fibers (amphibole) were more likely to increase health risks versus the chrysotile form of asbestos, which consists of long, curled fibers. Additionally, this research confirmed that even minimal exposure (of less than 1%), to amphibole fibers increases long-term health risks.

Unfortunately, legislation has yet to completely ban asbestos. Chrysotile asbestos is still utilized in things like cement and gaskets, which are less conducive to breaking down and forming toxic dust. Until such laws are imposed, it is recommended that you seek the assistance of a skilled home inspector.

Reducing Exposure is Key

In addition to knowing whether or not your attic insulation contains asbestos, it is also important to be aware of exposure. Let’s say your attic has vermiculite insulation and you understand that as long as it isn’t disturbed, there is no real threat. Of course, most of us spend minimal time in the attic, so that seems fairly simple. Right? Actually, that would depend on what your attic is used for.

Let’s say you only access your attic a few times each year, perhaps to grab those seasonal clothes or decorations; or, maybe your attic has a ventilation system. Now consider the fact that the pebble sized vermiculite lying on that attic floor isn’t sealed, unlike many of the asbestos building materials,such as ceiling or floor tiles. So, each time there is any air movement, those unsealed tiny, toxic particles are released into the air you breathe. Remember, less than 1% of exposure can increase health risks to you and your family.

What to Do if You Suspect Vermiculite

Since the dangers of Zonolite were exposed, certain programs have been implemented so homeowners can receive financial assistance in the safe removal of asbestos. Details are available through your local asbestos inspector.

Home inspectors are specially trained to identify potential dangers and are very knowledgeable in the various materials that may contain asbestos in older homes and buildings. Conversely, when you hire a quality inspector, you can have peace of mind that they will be dedicated to keeping you and your loved ones safe. Unlike government agencies, these individuals have families of their own and make sure customer service, honesty, and integrity are a top priority when working for you!

Albany Asbestos is certified to perform asbestos inspections and testing. Albany Asbestos team members are equipped with the most advanced technology, including portable testing devices that confirm the presence of asbestos. Then, in the event it does exist, their expert team can advise you on what to do next. Depending on the condition of the insulation and your plans for the area, options may include leaving it in place or having it professionally removed.

Finally, the only surefire way to determine if your attic insulation contains asbestos materials is to have it tested. Should your visual assessment raise any red flags, consider scheduling an Asbestos Inspection.

Asbestos testing and inspection are performed through our sister company Albany Asbestos, LLC.

To schedule a Asbestos testing, sampling and inspection call our Team: (518) 964-2081!

The Author Kevin Maxwell is the owner and operator of Maxwell Home Inspection Services, LLC. Kevin Maxwell is a certified Home Inspector located in Albany NY that has performed over 6000 Inspections.

Phone: 1-800-598-4754


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