The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was poised to issue a nationwide warning in April 2002 regarding the severe danger presented by Zonolite insulation, which contains a form of asbestos that is far more cancerous than normal asbestos and is found in attics and walls of homes, schools and businesses. The news releases were written. The White House had been notified well in advance. And the agency had compiled a list of governors to call and politicians to notify. Then, at the last minute and without explanation, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) blocked it.
Zonolite insulation was sold throughout North America from the 1940s through the 1990s. The EPA estimates that between 15 and 35 million homes throughout the United States are insulated with it.
The EPA’s national alert was to accompany a declaration of a public health emergency in Libby, Montana, where ore from a vermiculite mine was contaminated with an extremely lethal asbestos fiber called tremolite that has killed or sickened thousands of miners and their families, according to Pulitzer Price-winning reporter Andrew Schneider of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His article brought to light the White House’s interference and revealed the EPA’s ultimate capitulation.
Ore from the Libby mine, which was last owned by W.R. Grace & Co., was shipped across the nation and around the world and ended up in Zonolite insulation. W.R. Grace has settled hundreds of lawsuits that claimed death or illness from exposure to Zonolite.
So why did OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, headed by John Graham, secretly quash the alert? No one is exactly sure, and the White House isn’t talking. What we know is this: President Bush supports legislation to limit the liability of asbestos manufacturers. Vice President Dick Cheney was the CEO at Halliburton, a company that is the subject of a large number of asbestos liability claims. And the White House was concerned about the number of asbestos-related lawsuits filed against a dozen major corporations. Graham’s behind-the-scenes role further calls into question OMB’s involvement. Formerly director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, Graham received funding for his research from oil, chemical, auto, drug, food, mining and other industrial interests while playing a key role in the corporate campaign to undermine support for key federal health and safety standards.
Shortly after Schneider’s article was published, Public Citizen called on the Bush administration to explain why it prevented the EPA for more than a year from issuing the warning about potentially life-threatening Zonolite insulation products. The EPA eventually issued a warning May 21, 2003.