News Releases

Asbestos in the Attic: Murray Highlights Danger at Abandoned Spokane Home

Feb 18 2003

Joined by Spokane Residents, Murray Calls for Public Warnings and New Safety Guidelines

(Spokane, Washington) - Today U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash) highlighted the need to protect the public from deadly asbestos at an abandoned home in Spokane, Washington.

Murray spoke at the former home of a Spokane couple, Ralph Busch and Donna Duncan, who discovered during remodeling that their home was contaminated with asbestos-tainted insulation.

Murray was also joined by Marv Sather, a Spokane resident suffering from an asbestos-related disease, and Dr. Alan Whitehouse, a Spokane physician who treats asbestos victims.

Murray held the event to raise public awareness about the dangers of Zonolite Attic Insulation, which contains deadly asbestos. Although Zonolite is in millions of homes, businesses and schools, the EPA, NIOSH and other government agencies recently abandoned an effort to warn the public and issue new safety guidelines.

Murray has written to the White House for an explanation of why the EPA has not warned homeowners about these dangers. Murray introduced legislation in the last session of Congress to ban asbestos in the United States by 2005 and require an education campaign about Zonolite insulation within six months.

Remarks from Senator Murray, Ralph Busch, and Marv Sather follow:

SENATOR MURRAY'S REMARKS When I first heard about the dangers of asbestos exposure a few years ago, I couldn't believe it. Like most Americans, I thought we had banned asbestos long ago. But as I learned, asbestos was never successfully banned in the U.S.

It's hard to believe but to this day asbestos is still put in consumer products -- like brake pads and roofing materials -- on purpose. Everyday auto mechanics and construction workers are exposed to asbestos -- often without knowing it. Tragically, it only takes one, microscopic fiber to cause cancer. That's why last year, I introduced a bill to ban asbestos, to educate the public, and to support research on asbestos diseases.

But two months ago, I learned something even more shocking from an article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Millions of homes, businesses and schools are insulated with a product called Zonolite attic insulation. We know that Zonolite contains asbestos. Few people are aware of the danger. And here's what's truly unbelievable -- our government was about to warn homeowners nationwide about Zonolite insulation, but then someone pulled the plug. The warning was never issued. And today -- in up to 35 million homes, businesses, and schools -- people may be exposed to deadly asbestos without ever knowing it.

According to the Post Dispatch, the EPA and other government agencies were preparing to warn Americans about the dangers and to issue new safety guides for workers. Only those warnings were killed -- apparently by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

It is appalling that our government knew about this danger but suddenly abandoned a plan to warn the American people. If government has any role at all, it must include protecting the public health. No family in America should have to go through what Ralph Busch went through.

So on January 3rd, I wrote to EPA Administrator Whitman. I also wrote to Mitch Daniels, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. I got a letter back from Administrator Whitman. Unfortunately, it raised more questions than it answered. So on February 6th, I spoke for almost 30 minutes on the Senate floor. I told my colleagues about what happened to Ralph Busch and his wife Donna.

The next week on February 10th I sent letters to the EPA and OMB -- only these letters weren't just from me. They were from ten more Senators and Representatives. We're going to find out why the public was not warned. We're going to find out what role W.R. Grace and the White House played. We're going to pressure the White House, EPA, NIOSH, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and others to do the right thing and warn the public. And then we're going to take the hardest step. We're going to pass legislation to finally ban asbestos, educate the public and fight asbestos diseases. In fact, I'm preparing to reintroduce my bill for this session of Congress.

Of course, asbestos is not a new concern for residents of Spokane. As the Spokesman-Review has reported, for about two decades, deadly material from Libby was processed right here in Spokane. The EPA had to close off the former plant, and today the county is cleaning it up.

Ralph Busch exposed himself and his wife to asbestos when he renovated his home. He never knew about the dangers until he happened to read a story in the Seattle P-I. Today, his dream home is abandoned, his credit is ruined, and his health is a constant worry. Ralph Busch didn't do anything wrong. He couldn't have known about the danger of Zonolite insulation. But today we know, and we can make sure others know. Ralph and Donna, I want to thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for joining us here at your former home to raise public awareness. And I want to promise you that I'm going to do everything I can to make sure we warn the public so that no other family has to live through the nightmare you've experienced.

Marv Sather, as our State's past teacher of the year, you are truly a gift to Washington's students. As you fight your own battle against asbestos, I'm going to fight on your behalf in the Senate to boost funding to treat asbestos diseases.

Dr. Whitehouse, I want to thank you for being not only a doctor but also an advocate to so many people in Libby and Spokane. I want to make sure that fewer people will need your help fighting asbestos diseases in the future.

In closing, if I could share just two sentences with every American, I would say this: Deadly asbestos may be in your attic. If you have Zonolite attic insulation, do not touch it, get professional help, and tell your representatives to pass my bill so we can ban asbestos once and for all.

Before we take questions, I want to mention two resources that homeowners can visit for more information. First is the EPA's website at Another resources is my own website ( I have a section on asbestos where you can find out about my bill and get email updates.



Hello, my name is Ralph Busch, and along with my dear wife Donna, this house at 1512 West 14th Avenue in Spokane, Washington used to be our home. Look at this vacant house, a charming 1907 Victorian four square. Perfect style, great location, lots of potential. Following a long search, that's what Donna and I believed when we purchased it in December 1997.

We had great creative plans for upgrading this house while maintaining its historical integrity. Based on the strong recommendations of a home inspection service we hired prior to purchase, our first undertaking in the spring of 1998 was to repair inadequate roof bracing in the attic. That inspector had inaccurately called the attic insulation "blown-in perlite."

While working in the attic, I recognized the 6 -- 8 inches of loose-fill insulation as being vermiculite. With a love of houseplants, I had always considered vermiculite to be a friendly organic type of material. However, noticing the dust from it rising like smoke and hanging in the air, I tried to wear a paper facemask as much as possible...a precaution later to be found inadequate.

The attic was accessed by a small hatch in the closet ceiling of the master bedroom. As I was hauling additional fiberglass insulation and other materials up there...and continuously going back and forth to the back yard to cut the lumber...we noticed how easily the vermiculite insulation fell from the attic and tracked through the house. This particular project continued over several weekends.

It was the following spring of 1999 when Donna and I had firmed up our plans and really tore into our remodeling project. Wanting to restore the house to its original character, much of our focus was on undoing the damages caused by a major 1950s remodel. Unknowingly, we disturbed the attic insulation further by removing wall paneling on the second floor...exposing cracks from which vermiculate would seep. We had also located a utility shaft from attic to basement by opening up a stairway wall.

Worse still, we encountered a significant amount of vermiculite insulation while doing demolition work adjacent to the kitchen area on the first floor. Much of that was removed to augment soil in the flower beds.

Then, during February 2000, I happened to read my first newspaper article about Zonolite attic insulation, a product manufactured by W. R. Grace, made from vermiculite mined over decades in Libby, Montana. The story, investigated by Andrew Schneider for the Seattle Post Intelligencer, involved tragic death and dying in Libby. Zonolite was exposed as containing a particularly lethal form of asbestos fiber called Tremolite. I learned that, on a microscopic level, tremolite fibers have the equivalent of tiny fish hooks. When inhaled, the fibers attach relentlessly to lung tissues and can cause a horrible and painfully prolonged death.

Shocked by the possibility, we immediately pursued the laboratory testing of our vermiculite insulation. With the resulting presence of tremolite asbestos, I learned that I had unwittingly managed to expose myself...with over 200 hours of direct family, and contaminated my home with this awful material. Subsequent news reports and inquiries to the EPA said "don't disturb it." Having already significantly done that, we discontinued our remodeling activities...never to be continued. Here we were, stuck in the midst of remodeling, continuing to pay our mortgage for a dysfunctional house. Piles of construction materials we had purchased were appliances never to be installed. Along with plastic and duct tape, we were fearfully trapped living this way for over two years while we explored and exhausted one possible solution after another.

Our chosen bid from an asbestos remediation contractor was for $32,000. Adding additional demolition and construction costs, this was an amount which could never be recovered as an investment or improvement to this property. Our homeowners insurance denied our claim. Our mortgage company refused to work with us...they had HUD-guaranteed insurance which would cover their losses in the event of foreclosure. The contractor who had inspected our house prior to purchase hadn't known about Zonolite, either. We couldn't even legally sell the house without disclosing that it contained asbestos.

Our exposure to the asbestos and departure from the house had already been prolonged long enough. In May 2002 our only remaining option was to sacrifice our home to foreclosure. This has since destroyed our good credit rating, making it next to impossible to purchase another home.

Early on, we recognized that this nightmare could potentially be repeated many times over for others. With a feeling of hopelessness for ourselves, and out of a sense of compassion that no one else should have to have a similar experience, we became involved in a class action lawsuit against the manufacturer of Zonolite attic insulation...W.R. Grace, a huge multi-national corporation with a terrible environmental record. This has turned out to be an effort involving untold hours...allowing W.R. Grace in our home for days of testing, responding to their subpoenas and depositions. The initial thrust of this effort was that people should have the right to know about this potential danger lurking in their homes, businesses and schools. What we needed to see was the issuance of an official public warning and education about this hazard.

While testifying in Spokane Superior Court, I saw Grace expert witnesses make statements about the marginal hazards of Zonolite. This, while Grace scientists wore moon suits with respirators while testing in our home. I heard their attorneys tell the court that the certification of our class action was "blackmail against the defendant" and that a public warning was the equivalent of "yelling fire in a crowded theatre."

What would they have us do...keep the fire secret? Now, as the complexity of this story continues to unfold, we discover that this warning...still one that should have rightfully been made over twenty years ago. And we learn that the Bush administration, through its Office of Management and Budget, has blocked EPA in carrying out a plan to warn the public about the dangers of Zonolite insulation.

A St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigation of the matter concluded that "The Environmental Protection Agency was on the verge of warning millions of Americans that their attics and walls might contain asbestos-contaminated insulation. But, at the last minute, the White House intervened, and the warning has never been issued."

This briefly summarizes our experience in a situation that continues to affect our lives profoundly. Like most people, we try our best to be responsible, pay our bills, mortgages and taxes on time, vote, have all the proper insurances, and contribute to our community and society. Then when the system fails us in so many ways, fails to warn us of dangers that it knows about, fails to be there for us as promised, impacting our constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we have no alternative but to realize that something is very, very wrong in our country.

And, unfortunately, I think it's fair to say that this situation involving W. R. Grace, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bush administration, and the hidden Zonolite time bomb ticking away in millions of homes, is the rule rather than the exception, in the world of toxics regulation.

Everywhere we turn we find the same compromise in which public and environmental health is sacrificed to commercial interest. How can we continue to live with a false sense of security, while unprotected from harmful ingredients in the products we consume? How is it that big business can, with impunity, corrupt our government like this? This is unacceptable! The public health is not for sale!

I believe this is the sort of issue which should bring Democrats, Republicans, conservatives and liberals...whatever our political persuasion…together in common cause!

Mr. Sather is a teacher at Riverside High School and a former 40+ year resident of Libby, Montana.
Good morning! I am pleased to be with you today and to have this opportunity to share my part of the Zonolite story with individuals such as Mr. Busch, Dr. Whitehouse, and the Honorable Senator Murray. I will make my comments very brief so that we can focus on the important work that Senator Murray is doing regarding the dangers of asbestos as is contained in the household insulation known as Zonolite.

I was asked to be here this morning because I spent most of my life in Libby, Montana, but am now a resident of this state. A Montana native, I moved to Libby in 1948, when I was three years old. My father went to work for the lumber mill there. I lived in Libby until going away to college in 1963, returning home to work in the summers until the late summer of 1967 when I got a teaching job in Marysville, Washington. In 1971, I returned to Libby and taught there for 22 years. I moved back to Washington in 1993, becoming a teacher at Riverside High School in Chattaroy where I am still teaching now. In total, then, I lived in Libby for 40 years. Even when I have been away from Libby, I have been a frequent visitor because it is home. My mother still lives there, and my wife (who also lived in Libby much of her life) and I visited my mother, other family, and friends in Libby this past weekend.

Growing up in Libby, we were proud of the Zonolite mine. Our report cards trumpeted the fact that OUR MINE was the largest vermiculite mine in the world. My dad and I loaded Zonolite, as we called it, into the family pickup and mixed it in the clay-like soil at our family home to improve our garden spot. We put it in our attic as insulation. I used to slide on the slick piles near the railroad tracks near the Little League fields on which we played baseball, and I coached and helped at meets at the Libby High School track onto which Zonolite/vermiculite was the base for the running surface. Dad would take family visitors from out of town to the Zonolite shipping site where he would demonstrate for them how Zonolite "puffed up" when exposed to heat and flame. We were proud. Unfortunately, we were also completely unaware of the dangers that lurked within this interesting mineral of which we were so proud.

In the last five years, those of us from Libby have come to know much more about these shiny, slick, grayish-black flakes of mineral about which we once boasted. We now know that Zonolite is harmful, dangerous, and deadly. My wife and I have been tested by the Center for Disease Control and have been found to have some evidence of lung damage. But our personal cases are slight in comparison to numerous others who have suffered debilitating and painful lives, leading to death. As a result of the events in Libby and in other locations such as Spokane, I am here today to add my support to the recent efforts of Senator Murray to make Americans aware of dangers of Zonolite insulation.

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