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A new University of Cincinnati study links lung disease to low-level exposure to vermiculite, a common ingredient in potting soil and other landscaping and gardening products, as well as in insulation and other construction materials.
The study considered workers who mined and processed the asbestos-like mineral in Libby, Montana, which yielded 80% of the world's vermiculite. It did not study the effect on gardeners in backyards across America, nor construction workers or home remodelers. Still, the study's lead author, Dr. James Lockey, the senior research investigator, said vermiculite represents a public health threat.
The chest X-ray changes associated with the low cumulative fiber exposure are a public health concern, he said in a prepared statement. The Libby vermiculite ore was widely distributed across the United States for residential and commercial use, which means it could impact not only the workers who processed it but also consumers who used it for home insulation.
The findings, published in American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care are summarized here:
"In a 25-year follow-up study of workers at a plant which stopped using Libby vermiculite in 1980, current chest X-rays revealed that 20% of workers who experienced low cumulative exposure to these fibers had changes in the lining around their lungs," according to the university's description of the research. "In the group with the highest exposure, changes on chest X-rays were noted in 54% of workers."
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