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Dearborn Factory Believed To Have Produced Dangerous Asbestos

Jan 22, 2004 | AP

Federal officials are investigating a plant that may have processed a form of asbestos for nearly 50 years, putting workers and thousands of Michigan homeowners at risk.

Vermiculite arrived by trainloads for decades in Michigan from a mine in Libby, Mont. and was processed mainly into home insulation under the brand name Zonolite. The plant also made a fireproofing product called Mono-Kote.

The plant, Zono-lite/W.R. Grace, is the target of a federal investigation, begun in 2000.

The study will determine whether contamination still exists, who may have been exposed, at what levels, and for how long.

A researcher says as many as 700,000 homes in Michigan could have insulation laced with the asbestos.

Researchers and federal officials say the tainted mineral has killed hundreds and sickened thousands of miners and their families. It was sent to nine processing facilities in Michigan between the 1940s and 1990, according to federal officials.

The Dearborn plant is among 28 nationwide that is part of the initial phase of a federal accounting of the contamination and its effects on workers, neighbors and consumers.

The eight other Michigan sites — Elsie, River Rouge, Milan, Warren, Reed City and three in Grand Rapids — will be part of studies, according to investigators.

"The potential hazard is enormous" to the Dearborn plant's workers, Dr. Michael Harbut, former chair of the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Section of the American College of Chest Physicians, told the Detroit Free Press for a Thursday story.

Harbut, of Royal Oak, has treated thousands of asbestos exposure victims.

Bill Corchran, a spokesman for Connecticut-based W.R. Grace, said he had no comment on the Dearborn investigation. "I'm not familiar with that site," he said.

In addition to the contaminated vermiculite ore, the company used raw asbestos from Canada.

W.R. Grace, owner of the Libby mine and of the Dearborn plant, "has provided a list of former workers, and we will be attempting to contact them," said Mark Johnson, senior scientist with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which is coordinating the probe.

The Michigan Department of Community Health, which is conducting the health assessment for the federal government, will send its initial findings to the federal agency in February.

But T.J. Bucholz, department spokesman, would not release details, or say how many workers may have been employed at the Dearborn plant.

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