vermiculite + gas heating system in attic
January 17, 2019 11:51 AM   Subscribe

How worried should I be about vermiculite in the attic of my 1920s rental house along with an older gas heater?

I am renting a house built in 1920 located in the Los Angeles area. The gas heater has been very loud, so we checked the attic to make sure it was secured properly. While up there, we discovered that the insulation used is vermiculite, which is often contaminated with asbestos. Our lease has the normal California disclaimer saying that premises built before 1979 may contain asbestos, but that the owner has no knowledge of such.

I've found articles online saying that having a furnace in the attic along with vermiculite is potentially pretty dangerous, but primarily during the installation process. I'm not sure how to determine our risk factor now.

I have a couple of obvious concerns here.

1) Are we in danger here? How dangerous is vermiculite + a gas furnace? I'm looking for recommended action such as "get out now", "turn off your furnace and you should be fine", or "nah man don't worry about it."

2) Should we get the attic tested, or get the owner to test it?

3) I'm not sure how to properly word this, but if there's vermiculite right up there in the attic of a 100 year old house, were they lying to us about not knowing about any asbestos in the house? Do we have any grounds here to say that they lied to us? Should we lawyer up?

I already have survived one form of cancer and I'm both scared and frustrated that the place I've been living for eight months could have put me at serious risk for another!

Additionally, our landlord is terrible at responding to any kind of contact be it email or phone calls. Our maintenance requests for a broken outlet have gone unacknowledged for months.

Any resources relating to California regulations regarding asbestos would be very helpful, along with personal anecdotes or other such advice.
posted by beware the frog person to Home & Garden (3 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If the vermiculite is contaminated with asbestos you can test for that pretty easily. If it is contaminated that's somthing you can take up with your landlord.

Even if it is contaminated you ar not in immediate peril if the furnace is not primarily drawing air from the attic space. As vermiculite is non flammable there is no concern about a gas appliance in its proximity.
posted by Dr. Twist at 12:19 PM on January 17

I once owned a house packed with vermiculite. I'll share what I know.

First off, not all vermiculite has asbestos. Certain mines during certain time periods were contaminated so you'll need more detailed information about what brand was used and when. If you don't have that information, then it would need to be tested.

Second, it's asbestos. You only get exposed to the harmful fibers IF you disturb it enough to break off the microscopic pieces. If you're throwing the insulation around, crushing it underfoot, and handling it roughly then yes that will get the fibers into the air and then, possibly, into your lungs. Do it for a few years and then you will have a health issue.

If you leave it alone, your risk is extremely minimal. I'd personally say zero. There's miniscule amounts of fiber in the atmosphere all around you and has been for a long time - especially when cars had asbestos in their brake pads. It's in countless flooring products and wrapped around pipes in elementary schools. Removing it is way more dangerous than simply leaving it alone.

So, back to your house (and Dr. Twist has this right): The only way a gas furnace would be causing possible fiber exposure into your home would be if air was being drawn across the vermiculite and blown into the house. Usually gas heating systems are drawing air from the rooms and recirculating it, so I would guess that ambient air in the attic is being drawn into the flame and then out the flue. You would have to detail for us how the circulation is set up to determine more. But, again, unless there is a vortex of air spinning around the attic nothing is really being disturbed.

Should your landlord have told you? I'm not legally qualified to answer but it seems a lot like other hazards in a house (e.g. lead paint) that you have to explain to a buyer/renter IF you know they exist, otherwise you can check the box that says "this house was built during (certain hazard era) and for all I know it *might* contain a problem but I don't know for sure".

So, TLDR: You are perfectly safe, but for your peace of mind you can get the insulation tested and, if there's a positive result, get an airborne sample test to determine what the hazards are. If that result is not good, then you have something to use against your landlord.
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:22 PM on January 17 [5 favorites]

Most HVAC ductwork is sloppily installed, with significant leakage. My concern would be that any leaks in the return ducts could draw vermiculite or vermiculite dust in and distribute it. You could have the vermiculite itself tested for asbestos, or you could do a "where the rubber meets the road" test and just have the asbestos levels in your living area tested. Ultimately, the asbestos levels in your living area matter more than if the vermiculite in the attic is asbestos contaminated or not.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 4:23 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]

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