The Attic Monster: Industry Luminary Spreads Awareness about Deadly Substance
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The Attic Monster: Industry Luminary Spreads Awareness about Deadly Substance

Nick McLain
Dec 06, 2012

When Bill Cawlfield received his diagnosis in 2007, one thought crept into his mind.

“I was going to die,” he says.

Cawlfield had ample reason to feel that way —he had mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that occurs in the cells of the membrane that lines the body’s internal organs (called the mesothelium). It is most often caused by exposure to and inhalation of asbestos particles.

Symptoms don’t normally begin appearing until 20 to 50 years after the exposure. According to the Mesothelioma Center, the average life expectancy is one year after diagnosis.

Cawlfield’s exposure occurred in the 1950s, when he and his father put insulation in the family’s farmhouse attic (he still owns the farmhouse to this day). The insulation he poured into the attic was a material called vermiculite, under the trade name Zonolite.

As a longtime member of the custom electronics industry and CEDIA's 1996 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, Cawlfield has made it a mission of sorts to raise the industry's awareness of vermiculite. Because the substance poses a grave danger to anyone who encounters it in the attic of homes that have been treated with it, Cawlfield believes electronic systems professionals need to be aware of the risks when working on retrofit projects.

Battling the Worst

Cawlfield’s diagnosis, peritoneal mesothelioma, is a cancer that occurs in the abdominal region (pleural mesothelioma, which forms around the lungs, is the most common type). Fortunately, his cancer was caught relatively early — and purely by accident. Cawlfield went in for a scan to check out his heart, and the radiologist noticed enlarged lymph nodes in the chest and ordered a PET scan of his belly. The result was startling. “They said I lit up like a Christmas tree,” Cawlfield says.

He then began the treatment process. They opened up his belly and discovered a war zone — 50 years of the slow-growing cancer had ravaged the outside of his scarred organs. To combat it, the doctors poured in hot chemotherapy treatment and let it do its work.

After a year of chemo and three operations, the cancer was gone. In the process, Cawlfield lost his belly button, spleen and appendix. His recovery marks one of the few positive stories among mesothelioma sufferers. “I was lucky to have caught it early,” he says.

The Battle Doesn't End

Cawlfield’s fight didn’t end with the mesothelioma gone. He now pushes for greater awareness of the substance that caused his issues: vermiculite insulation. While asbestos is widely known, vermiculite specifically is not, according to Dr. Aubrey Miller, senior medical advisor to the director at the National Institute of Environmental Health Science. “It’s not a well-known situation,” he says. “If you mess with this stuff in the house, the exposure rates are extraordinarily high.”

Miller, then with the US Environmental Protection Agency, came to Cawlfield’s house in 2007 to study the vermiculite in his attic. He’s been researching it since the late 1990s. While vermiculite hasn’t definitively been proven harmful in its other uses, like soil conditioning, its use in attic insulation (primarily from the 1950s to the mid-1980s) is in fact quite dangerous.

Miller says millions of homes have vermiculite insulation in them – perhaps even tens of millions. Homes older than 1984-1985 (around the time Zonolite insulation fell out of favor) are the ones most likely to still have it.

Identifying Vermiculite and Safety Protocols

Vermiculite is a pour-in, pebble-like loose insulation that looks like shiny pieces of puffed rice or popcorn, Dr. Miller says. It is often colored silver-gold or gray-brown. Cawlfield recommends that those who go into the attic look under batting insulation to ensure it is not merely covering existing vermiculite insulation.

If you spot vermiculite, leave the attic immediately and alert the homeowner, Miller says. Do not try to complete the job until after the homeowner gets the problem abated. “If you go in there and stir it up, it gets into the air real quick,” Miller says. “You will then be exposed, and if it gets on your clothes, you could also risk exposing your family or other people to it. Don’t take this lightly. It’s not something to mess with.”

Many abatement companies know how to safely remove vermiculite, something Cawlfield had done in his farmhouse at a cost of $15,000.

In terms of basic preventative measures, Miller recommends relatively inexpensive N95 paper masks, shoe covers and disposable Tyvek jumpsuits. While the mask won’t completely protect you in the event that you disturb the vermiculite, it should suffice while you carefully look into an attic for its presence. Disposing of the shoe covers and jumpsuits in a sealed plastic bag will keep any particles from getting on your clothing.

Cawlfield wants everyone in the custom electronics industry to be aware of vermiculite and its dangers. “Most installers don’t even know that this stuff exists – no one in the industry seems to have even heard of it,” he says. “Most people think of asbestos as a thing of the past, something their fathers and grandfathers had to deal with, but you can enter an attic in a normal, innocent-looking home and get exposed to as much asbestos as the old shipyard workers. It only takes one exposure. This stuff has no half-life. It’s just as nasty 60 years later as the day it was put in.”


Some helpful links for more information on vermiculite:


About Nick McLain
Nick McLain is CEDIA's Technical Journalist. He can be reached at nmclain@cedia.org.

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CEDIA blog posts are intended to provide general information and should not be regarded as legal opinions or advice.

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