Vermiculite insulation in the attic and its impact on real estate transactions

Vermiculite insulation has been used as thermal insulation for walls and loose-fill attics in North America since the early 1920s. Pure vermiculite does not pose any known health risks, however vermiculite from the popular site of Libby, Montana has been identified as containing traces of tremolite asbestos. For the homeowner with vermiculite insulation, the most worried about the origin of the natural mineral, however, for the average home buyer, the stigma associated with vermiculite affects the entire real estate transaction.

Homeowner’s health risks

The health risks associated with owning and living a loose vermiculite insulated property are generally considered to be low due to the limited direct impact on the home owner’s installed insulation. Approximately 60% of vermiculite insulation installed in North America is asbestos-based material (ACM) due to the popularity and market dominance of some domestic suppliers of insulation materials prior to the early 1990s. Although the presence of asbestos is not guaranteed, without testing to determine the composition of vermiculite, the Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety notes that “it is reasonable to assume that it may be contaminated with asbestos.” Known risks associated with exposure to asbestos containing vermiculite include: Asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer. The risk increases with exposure, so the following precautions should be taken to prevent damage to the insulation of the vermiculite, which could lead to airborne transport of asbestos fibers:

1. Seal all cracks and crevices in the ceiling to prevent air exchange between the airspace and the living space.

2. Do not store items in the attic.

3. Minimize opening of attic hatches.

4. Do not strip the insulation yourself.

5. Inform all contractors that vermiculite insulation is present, which may contain asbestos, and only hire contractors who are licensed to work with asbestos.

Vermiculite and real estate transactions

The reality of owning or buying property that contains vermiculite is that there is a risk associated with exposure to asbestos-containing materials and a financial commitment to owning the affected property. It is imperative that the vermiculite is tested to determine if it contains asbestos; There is a 60% chance that it is an asbestos-containing material (ACM), and some jurisdictions have legal requirements to test for asbestos in order to notify contractors of the potential risk. The costs associated with vermiculite analysis vary by geographic location, however, it is important to note the following:

1. The collection and integrity of samples are critical issues for the reliability of results. The testing methodology dictates the specific steps to be taken to collect a representative sample of homogeneous material: do not trust the accuracy of testing to home inspectors or your best efforts. Poor sampling methods are tantamount to inaccurate and invalid results. There is significant liability for the seller (or renovator) homeowner for providing invalid negative results that affect the end user or contractor. Hire a testing professional.

2. Due to the physical structure of asbestos and vermiculite fibers, the distribution of asbestos in vermiculite is not constant and the fibers settle over time. Accurate testing requires the collection of multiple samples from different locations within the specified isolation.

Vermiculite is often the subject of trade negotiations. Potential buyers of properties containing vermiculite expect a discount on the sales price associated with the potential costs associated with removing asbestos containing vermiculite. Having a professional collection of viable samples with analysis performed by an accredited testing laboratory will provide the seller with the information necessary to determine whether the emission reductions undertaken prior to listing are beneficial or necessary at all.

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