Asbestos-Contaminated Gardening Products

The contamination of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite in consumer products is not often talked about, though it certainly exists. Numerous studies by both federal and private organizations have examined the presence of vermiculite in gardening products and other chrysotile and talc-containing merchandise. The EPA recently released a study sampling market products, primarily for gardening use, to see if they contained dangerous levels of asbestos. Contaminated products pose the risk of releasing asbestos fibers into the air and being inhaled by consumers. The inhalation of asbestos fibers carries a serious and fatal risk, and leads to development of mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. If you were exposed to asbestos through your job or by exposure to asbestos-contaminated products, contact a mesothelioma attorney immediately for a free consultation.

Like asbestos, vermiculite is a mineral used in an assortment of horticulture, construction, industrial, and insulation materials. The EPA study conducted their first round of testing on sixteen products at a Seattle-area gardening store. Of those sixteen, five tested positive for any trace of asbestos and three contained a substantial percentage of asbestos: Zonolite Chemical Packaging Vermiculite, Therm-O-Rock West, and Cole’s Cactus Mix. Researchers brought the three asbestos-containing products to their lab to test if any of the asbestos fibers would become airborne through normal use and handling. The products were placed in a small, enclosed metal box with gloves and collected and analyzed air samples. They determined that one of the products tested generated relatively high levels of asbestos (Zolonite Chemical Packaging Vermiculite). This finding prompted the Seattle office to recommend that consumers refrain from using that particular vermiculite chemical packaging material. This product is apparently no longer available to consumers at garden stores.

EPA then decided to expand the scope of its analysis, to include additional vermiculite products available nationally, and to calculate the risk posed in cases where airborne asbestos fibers were detected during product handling. The Agency, through its expert contractors, purchased and analyzed 38 products from around the country and detected asbestos in 17 of them. Of these, only five contained quantifiable levels of asbestos. EPA scientists, along with the contractors, then conducted two simulated consumer use scenarios. One simulation was performed indoors in a “still air” environment (a 10’x10’x10′ enclosure) in an attempt to represent consumer use in a small garage or greenhouse. The other simulation was performed outside in open air.

In some cases, one sample of a product indicated the presence of asbestos while another did not. This variability is likely due to a number of factors including the following: (1) the asbestos content of the vermiculite products appears to be very close to the technological limit of detection, so one test might detect the presence of asbestos while a second one would not; (2) only a very small portion (0.01 grams) of each product is actually viewed under the microscope, although individual bags may contain up to several cubic meters; (3) the bagged product is not homogeneous; (4) different processing facilities use different dust removal techniques; (5) there are differences in the asbestos content of vermiculite ore from different mines; and (6) asbestos content varies throughout the vermiculite deposits in each mine.

The results of this investigation indicate that consumers face only a minimal health risk from using vermiculite products at home or in their gardens. Vermiculite may, however, present more serious risks in an occupational setting, where the duration and frequency of exposures are likely to be significantly greater. EPA is concerned about potential occupational exposures and has provided this report to OSHA to assist that agency in evaluating the hazards to workers from vermiculite.

To further reduce the low risk associated with the occasional use of vermiculite products during gardening activities, EPA recommends that consumers:

  • Use vermiculite outdoors or in a well-ventilated area.
  • Avoid creating dust by keeping vermiculite damp during use.
  • Avoid bringing dust into the home on clothing.

Although EPA does not endorse the use of any particular product, consumers may choose to use:

  • Premixed potting soils, which ordinarily contain more moisture and less vermiculite than pure vermiculite products and are less likely to generate dust.
  • Soil amendment materials other than vermiculite, such as peat, sawdust, perlite, or bark.

Lung cancer lawyers at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm want to remind the public that no amount of asbestos inhalation is safe. If you were exposed to fibers through use of vermiculite products, contact an asbestos attorney today to discuss your potential claim.