November 30, 2010 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 3Comment

No doubt that a federal agency’s website can be a useful public relations tool. We all have much better access now to government data, reports and other records. That’s certainly a good thing. But even the most content-rich website cannot substitute for other forms of communication and information sharing. Yet more and more lately I’m hearing reporters recount a different experience in their conversations with Obama Administration public affairs offices. During the peak of Deepwater Horizon disaster, for example, reporters were frequently told “looked at our website,” “it’s probably on our website,” or worse “everything you need to know is on the website.” These responses make us feel that agency websites have become a crutch, or even a way for the agency to avoid taking meaningful action.

Today it came up again. I’m reading Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Andrew Schneider’s four-part series for AOLNews about the public health crisis created by asbestos-laded vermiculite home insulation. For at least 30 years, the EPA has had ample evidence to warn of the looming disaster yet their flimsy response is “we have a webpage on that.”

I came to know investigative journalist Andrew Schneider when I was working at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in the 1990’s. I consider him a public health colleague and a journalist who embraces his calling to work in the public interest. After publishing his book with David McCumber “An Air That Kills” he swore that he’d never again write another asbestos-related story. But, the government’s breach of trust, malfeasance, delinquency, call it what you want failure to take aggressive action to warn the public about the fluffy vermiculite killer in their attic obviously got under Schneider’s skin. The public is better off for it. His investigative series is published in four parts:

Part 1: Government refuses to act on cancer-causing insulation
: When asked what they’ve done to alert the public, EPA officials repeatedly point to the vermiculite page on the agency’s website, which even many inside the agency say is inadequate. Schneider interviewed Joel Shufro of NYCOSH who said

“Failure of the government to inform workers and others who may be exposed to this hazard is incorrigible. This is a well-known, aggressive carcinogen and unless people know about it, it’s a prescription for death.”

Retired EPA investigator Keven McDermott is also frustrated by EPA’s lackluster attempt at a public warning. Some individuals know the Zonolite asbestos is in their attics, they don’t have the financial means to have it removed safely by experts, but they also know not to disturb it because it is dangerous.

“What about the millions that have no idea at all? Just posting it on the agency’s website is not the answer. How can EPA still be keeping this a secret?”

Schneider dissects a troubling pattern of insufficient action by EPA officials to address the asbestos-contaminated vermiculite problem. The government’s failure dates back at least 30 years despite tidal waves of reports, investigations, inquiries and a growing body count. The Obama Administration’s EPA has also failed public health. Schneider writes how Lisa Jackson promised 17 months ago to launch a massive public education effort for residents of the estimated 35 million homes containing vermiculite insulation. He writes:

“Repeated requests with EPA’s press office for an interview with Jackson or anyone else who can explain the agency’s refusal to warn the public of the asbestos dangers were refused.”

Part 2: Cancer patient’s home a ‘living laboratory’ for deadly fibers: Schneider introduces us to William Cawlfield, 71, who is now suffering from abdominal peritoneal mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Cawlfied was 15 years old when his father installed vermiculite insulation in the attic of their home.

“I used to play up there and kept my toys and a bunch of books because it was like a sand pile where I could hide things. I had no idea that the asbestos was in it.”

Mr. Cawlfield is also angered by EPA’s continuing inaction:

“We have these kids — 25-year-olds — in these attics, running wires, doing installations and repairs, crawling through this Zonolite without respirators or a care in the world. Because EPA never told them it could kill them. …Ten years after the deaths at Libby…and all EPA has done is set up a website on Zonolite. How does the average homeowner or worker even know it’s there to look at?”

Part 3: In Libby there was no maybe about dangers: Schneider gives us a snapshot of the public health investigators who converged on Libby, MT in 1999 and assembled the scientific evidence to document the magnitude of the health crisis. Among their many findings, the asbestos fibers in the vermiculite ore are particularly deadly, killing the stricken in half the time of other types of asbestos. This ore is now spread widely throughout homes in the U.S. and Canada in the form of attic insulation. Do you know if your home contains Zonolite insulation?

Part 4: Asbestos dangers known centuries ago, but battle continues: Schneider describes the efforts of Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) to pass a law to ban asbestos—-No, asbestos is not banned in the U.S., although it is banned in 53 countries and how it failed in 2007. He also tells the story of Raven ThunderSky of the Poplar River First Nation reserve. The Canadian government insulated the homes of more than 600 people in ThunderSky’s community in the 1950’s with the asbestos-laden vermiculite ore. Schneider calls her a poster child for the hazards of vermiculite insulation. Her parents and four siblings are dead from asbestos-related cancers and respiratory disease; she suffers from asbestosis.

Before writing this 6,800 word, four-part series, Schneider had already written nearly 400 stories about asbestos and vermiculite. It was the last subject he wished to write about. So why’d he do it?

“The government hasn’t done #$%&!”, he said.

I couldn’t agree more. A webpage is a insufficient response to the magnitude of the health risk and far too little after EPA’s promise 17 months ago of a meaningful public warning.

3 thoughts on ““It’s on our website”: an insufficient response to asbestos danger lurking in millons of attics

  1. This seems right to me. Although most people are on the Internet (e.g. Facebook), that does not mean that most people check government websites.

    Probably what they should do is also have a television channel where this information can be readily accessed.


  2. Count on EPA to do the minimum — a webpage.

    Focus on homeowners and realtors — that’s where the affected money is. If homeowners suddenly knew they might not be able to resell their house because if it contains zonolite, there would be much more discussion about the subject. What if home buyers suddenly began requesting proof that zonolite in a home was not contaminated with asbestos.

    Most residential ductwork leaks and return ductwork that goes through an attic can draw in contaminants from the attic and deposit them inside the house.

    I’d suggest making the comparison for home owners and buyers that while they may be testing for radon for contamination coming up from the ground, it might be the zonolite in the attic that is more likely to impact family members.

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