Yards near W.R. Grace’s former Zonolite factory in Spokane are being retested for asbestos with new technology that can detect the cancer-causing fibers at ever lower levels.
For Kandi Smith, that meant watching two men in white hazmat suits and respirators dig 30 soil samples from her lawn Tuesday morning. Cars driving past the house slowed, as drivers gawked at the scene.
“It was kind of embarrassing,” said Smith, who wondered if strangers thought the hazmat response was part of a meth lab cleanup.
Still, Smith and her husband, Todd, welcomed the soil testing, which was conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency. The couple bought their West Central home three years ago. They didn’t realize that an empty lot nearby was once the home of Vermiculite Northwest.
“If there’s asbestos, we’d rather know,” Smith said.
For 22 years, Vermiculite Northwest produced Zonolite, an asbestos-tainted attic insulation. Rail cars brought vermiculite ore from Libby, Mont., to the plant on North Maple Street, where furnaces heated the ore until it puffed up into lightweight insulation.
In 2000 and 2001, EPA sampled soils from nearby yards. Only trace amounts of asbestos were found, prompting the EPA to give the area a clean bill of health.
But asbestos testing has advanced, and so has the EPA’s knowledge of asbestos.
“Asbestos is a threat when it becomes airborne and can be inhaled. Asbestos in the soil can become airborne even at very low levels,” said Greg Weigel, the agency’s on-scene coordinator.
The EPA decided to retest the Spokane yards after the agency declared a public health emergency in Libby, where contamination from a now-closed vermiculite mine has been cited in the deaths of more than 200 people. Thousands more are believed to suffer from asbestos-related illnesses, including asbestosis and mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung lining.
“A lot of the data has been coming out of the work in Libby,” said Jed Januch, a senior EPA investigator.
For years, yards were considered safe if soil samples contained less than 1 percent asbestos. But “that was not a health-based standard,” Januch said.
In addition, the testing is more sophisticated. Old methods could detect asbestos at rates of 1 percent in soil samples. New testing can detect asbestos at rates of 0.25 percent in soil samples, and emerging methods show promise for detecting even smaller ratios.
EPA is testing soils at nine residences near the Vermiculite Northwest site, which W.R. Grace closed in 1973 after a whistle-blower tipped state inspectors to high asbestos levels inside. Spokane County’s road department bought the property, which was capped with asphalt as part of the cleanup.
EPA will spend between $900 and $1,400 on soil analyses for each yard. The agency also is sampling soils on county-owned property. Results could be ready by late August.
Depending on the results, the initial sampling could trigger additional yard testing.
The next step would involve taking air samples during common soil-disturbing activities, such as raking, moving the lawn or shoveling dirt.
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