Survivor: Vermiculite Remains a Threat in American Homes

Bill Cawlfield and his wife

Bill Cawlfield still owns the Colorado farmhouse where he helped his father insulate the attic with vermiculite more than 50 years ago, eventually leading to his diagnosis of peritoneal mesothelioma.

It serves as a reminder, helping him help others.

Cawlfield is a six-year mesothelioma survivor determined to raise awareness to the serious, but under-recognized problem of homes across America that still contain the dangerous vermiculite insulation.

“It’s part of the most widespread, man-made environmental disaster in our history,” Cawlfield told Asbsestos.com. “It’s not going away. You can’t bury it in some salt mine in Nevada. It’s already buried in 10 million-plus homes in our country. And people are still going to die because of it.”

Cawlfield, 74, will be speaking in Denver next week at the annual Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA) Expo. He is part of a session entitled “Monsters in the Attic and Elsewhere: The Unseen Threats of Retrofit Projects.”

Asbestos Dangers in the Attic

He is hoping to educate the companies that send integrators to work in older homes installing electronic systems that typically require access to attics. Vermiculite insulation was popular in millions of American homes built between the 1950s and early 1970s.

A majority of the vermiculite used in insulation contained high concentrations of asbestos, which has caused a variety of serious health issues, including mesothelioma cancer. The vermiculite came mostly from the W.R. Grace Company, which operated a vermiculite mine and processing mill in Libby, Mont. Hundreds of residents in Libby have died and thousands have been sickened by the mining, requiring the longest-running EPA cleanup in history.

The last Libby mine shut down in 1990, but its vermiculite remains spread across the country, particularly with in-home insulation. Although builders discontinued its use by the mid-1970s in favor of fiberglass insulating materials, it remains in an estimated 10 to 15 million homes.

“It’s a widespread problem today, a major issue and a potential hazard for both homeowners and anyone working near it,” said Aubrey Miller, M.D., Ph.D., senior medical adviser for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “It’s different from a lot of other asbestos products. Just minor disturbance of it produces extraordinarily high levels of exposure. It’s very dangerous.”

Identifying Vermiculite Insulation

Vermiculite insulation, which often was sold under the brand name of Zonolite, resembles pea-sized popcorn or puffed rice. It was poured into attics as an efficient way to insulate homes 40 to 60  years ago. Because it is so lightweight, it easily becomes airborne and the microscopic asbestos fibers spread quickly.

Homeowners who renovate, use their attic for storage or just venture into it even once are at risk of acquiring an asbestos-related disease, which often isn’t discovered until decades later. Too often, it isn’t discovered until symptoms become obvious and the cancer has spread throughout the body, leaving a victim with a life expectancy of 12 to 18 months.

Cawlfield, though, was one of the lucky mesothelioma victims.

He was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma late in 2007, almost by accident. Cawlfield has a family history of heart disease. He was undergoing a scan for calcium buildup in his arteries when doctors found lymph node enlargement in the chest cavity. That led to more testing, and the eventual discovery of peritoneal mesothelioma.

Doctors removed his spleen, appendix and a small part of his pancreas during multiple surgeries. He received numerous rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, included the HIPEC  procedure, where his abdomen was filled with a 108-degree chemotherapy solution that circulated for two hours before being drained.

“They had to open me up like a frog in biology class,” he said. “They said my insides looked like a gigantic bird’s nest. It was so messed up. Then it was shake and bake with that heated chemotherapy, and I was filled like a puffed up turkey for Thanksgiving.”

Six Years in Remission

Cawlfield believes he is cancer-free today. He has no fluid buildup and no other signs of problems. The lymph nodes are normal-sized. He undergoes testing twice each year, and so far, it’s all good. He no longer lives in the farmhouse where the vermiculite insulation was abated a few years ago.

“I’ve had so much radiation, I almost glow in the dark  now,” he said. “But I feel great. Is there asbestos floating around inside me still? Probably, but it’s not worthy. Now, I’m just back and dealing with my original cholesterol issue.”

He has a busy lifestyle today, even in his semi-retirement. He and his wife have a  small stage company outside Denver, where they promote live theater. He is a collector of antique radios.

Cawlfield spent his career in the custom electronics industry, which is why he remains passionate about spreading awareness to the unsuspecting dangers in the business.

“It’s frustrating sometimes because there is so much apathy toward this topic, even in that industry. They know about lead paint and other toxins, but they think asbestos and vermiculite is a thing of the past. It isn’t. The dangers are real today,” he said. “There are a lot of people out there being exposed and I have no way of reaching all of them.”


Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer with more than 30 years of reporting national and international news. His most recent experience is in researching and writing about asbestos litigation issues and asbestos-related conditions like mesothelioma. If you have a story idea for Tim, please email him at tpovtak@asbestos.com

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