Is that Vermiculite in Your Attic?

By now, everybody has heard about the widespread use of asbestos building materials in older Toronto homes. This rock-based material was used extensively because of its superior insulating and fire-proofing properties. However, it has now been identified as a known carcinogen and a truly dangerous substance. This substance is so dangerous, there is an entire industry dedicated to asbestos testing in Toronto.

But what about asbestos’ ugly cousin, vermiculite, that was once touted as a safe alternative? Do you need to be worried about it? Unfortunately, the answer is probably yes.

Uses for Vermiculite

Vermiculite is a natural material that expands when heated. Because of its pliable properties, it makes an excellent source of insulation. It was used extensively in attics in homes all over Southern Ontario. It’s also an excellent garden material, which is why avid gardeners gasp in horror when given reason to believe vermiculite might be unsafe to use on their beloved begonias.
Most potting soils today contain at least trace amounts of vermiculite. So why is it a safe soil additive for plants, flowers and vegetables, but not as an insulation material? The difference is in the location where the vermiculite was mined.

Safe Sources of Vermiculite

Vermiculite itself is perfectly safe, it’s when it is mined in close quarters with asbestos that it becomes a problem. The vermiculite used in today’s gardening soil comes from different sources in China and South Africa, whereas the vermiculite that was used in construction materials came from a single mine in Libby, Montana. At one time over 80% of the world’s vermiculite came from this one mine. It was mined in tandem with asbestos, which provided perfect conditions for cross-contamination.

As vermiculite is no longer used in building materials and hasn’t been in two decades, it’s safe to assume that if it is present in your attic, it’s the of the “not safe” variety. The next decision you have to make is whether or not to remove it.

Vermiculite Removal in Toronto

As the real problems with vermiculite stem from the asbestos fibers it’s contaminated with, the same rules that apply to asbestos removal also apply to vermiculite removal. If you’re not planning any renovations or repairs that would disrupt the fibers and cause them to become airborne, the safest course of action may be to leave it alone. Undisturbed vermiculite is not a danger to human health.

If you are planning renovations, or you need to have home repairs done that require access to the attic, it’s important to work with a company that also specializes in asbestos removal. This is absolutely not a project to attempt yourself as part of a weekend home renovation project. Special training is required to ensure safe vermiculite remediation and the secure disposal of affected materials once it has been removed.

If you suspect the presence of vermiculite insulation in your attic, and it’s a legitimate concern for the owners of older Toronto homes, be sure to thoroughly investigate the credentials of the company you hire to remove it!

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