New Orleans workers at the W.R. Grace vermiculite exfoliation plant were exposed to asbestos from 1965 to 1989. The facility is located in Jefferson Parish on River Road. During this time, the plant received 148,000 tons of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from the Libby, Montana mine, also owned by W.R. Grace.
The vermiculite mine in Libby operated from the early 1920s until 1990, producing over 70% of vermiculite sold in the U.S. Though vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral – in appearance, much like mica with multiple shiny layers – it was contaminated with asbestos in the Libby mine. W.R. Grace both mined and processed the ore and then shipped to locations all over the United States, including Louisiana.
The dangers of asbestos contaminated vermiculite
Inhalation is the primary means of exposure to asbestos. As tons of vermiculite were shipped to a location, processed, and shipped out to other locations, the ore released asbestos fibers into the air. These could also be released during the mining, milling, and exfoliation operations. Though workers were the most susceptible to exposure, people in nearby offices and residences could also be exposure, as well as their family members. In the case of W.R. Grace in New Orleans, there is a residential area a few hundred feet northeast of the site.
A report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states, “Some studies suggest that populations who live near asbestos mines and mills have experienced excess asbestos-related diseases, specifically mesothelioma.”
Workers at the W.R. Grace vermiculite exfoliation plant were exposed to asbestos
The W.R. Grace plant was an exfoliation facility. That process required vermiculite to be heated to high temperatures. The water contained in the mineral converted to steam and then separated the mineral into its layers, expanding the vermiculite into small worm-shaped pieces. By doing this, its bulk volume was expanded, or “popped,” and the mineral became a commercially valuable product – primarily for attic insulation, concrete aggregate, masonry insulation, horticultural soil conditioner, and a spray-applied fireproofing. But, in this process, asbestos was released and made available for human exposure.
There was a population of 5,047 within one mile of the facility in 1989, the time production ceased. Jefferson Parish still ranks 19th among all U.S. counties in deaths from mesothelioma.
W.R. Grace reported that at the time operations ceased, a remediation was conducted at the site including vacuum and water rinse of equipment, walls, and floors, and removal of equipment.
What to do if you think you were exposed
Diseases from asbestos exposure, such as mesothelioma, can take up to 50 years before symptoms appear. It has only been 30 years since Libby vermiculite processing ceased. If you think you were exposed, the first precaution would be to stop smoking as that can aggravate any potential lung disease. It would also be prudent to let your doctor know the timeframe and degree of exposure you experienced and have regular checkups.
Exposure from working with a product containing asbestos, such as Libby vermiculite, dramatically increases the risk of disease. The sad truth is that those exposed to vermiculite had no idea they were inhaling fibers that would potentially shorten their lives.