I was attending a home inspection on a 1960’s house for sale here in Collingwood. As the inspector was climbing down his ladder from the attic, the conversation went something like this:
Me: Please tell me there is no mould or vermiculite in that attic
Inspector: Marg, there is both vermiculite and possible mould in the attic
Potential Buyer: Oh my God
Me: Do you have any baggies?
Inspector: I have one Ziploc one
Me: I’ll go find two more
Potential Buyer: What the hell do baggies have to do with this?
So while the potential buyer was likely having a small heart attack and, while I was rummaging for baggies, the inspector explained that some vermiculite insulation, but not all, is known to contain asbestos.
Asbestos fibres are potential health risks if they are disturbed. In this particular case, the insulation was blown in right over the soffit vents which was also likely the reason for the mould. That meant someone was going to have to go up in the attic and clear the vents; in other words, disturb the insulation.
Now not all vermiculite contains asbestos fibres. The concerns is a specific brand of the insulation that was produced by the Libby Mine in Montana for about 70 years from the 1920’s to 1990 under the name Zonolite®. That mine supplied most of the world market but was not extensively used after the mid-1980’s and has not been sold in Canada since 1990.
The trick is that you cannot tell by looking at vermiculite if it contains these fibres or not. The only way to know for sure is to have it tested by a lab and hence, the baggies.
The inspector went back up into the attic and filled the three baggies with about 2 cups each of vermiculite taken from three different areas of the attic. I carefully zipped them up, tucked them in my briefcase and took them back to the office. Later that day, we couriered the samples to a test lab and within two days, had the results: the insulation tested positive for asbestos fibres.
Now the challenging part of a real estate deal really takes place. Many potential buyers would simply walk away from the deal. Most sellers don’t want the expense of having to remedy the problem. The reality is that the seller must disclose all known material defects about a house and such disclosure would likely negate any future sale. Can you imagine telling a buyer that we have mould because of insulation covering the vents and by the way, the insulation contains asbestos? Thankfully in this case, we had level headed clients on both sides who wanted the problem resolved and the deal to complete. The Sellers agreed to remedy the issues through an abatement program with a qualified abatement contractor and the Buyers agreed to proceed with the transaction.
If you own a home built before 1990 that has vermiculite insulation, you are well advised to have it tested now to avoid a future issue. Also, as mould is increasingly becoming an issue as climates change, homeowners should ensure their attics have adequate ventilation and are free of mould. For Buyers, this is yet another reason to have a full home inspection before you buy and, an agent representing you who can help work through the issues.