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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency cautioned homeowners Wednesday against disturbing and inhaling vermiculite insulation used in attics and walls because it could contain low levels of microscopic asbestos.

EPA's consumer campaign is meant to help homeowners learn how to identify vermiculite possibly containing asbestos, a fibrous mineral once commonly used for insulation and fireproofing that causes respiratory diseases, lung cancer, and numerous other ailments.

Vermiculite is a mineral mined commercially in the United States and other countries such as Australia, Brazil, China, Kenya and South Africa, EPA said, and only a few ores have been found to contain more than trace amounts of asbestos. It has been mined for agricultural, horticultural and industrial uses for more than 80 years, the agency said.

EPA said homeowners can minimize the risk of exposure by:

- Not disturbing vermiculite attic insulation, as any disturbance has the potential to release asbestos fibers into the air.

- Limiting the number and duration of trips to the attic and trying to refrain from storing boxes and other items there that would need to be retrieved.

- Barring children from playing in an attic with open areas of vermiculite insulation.

- Never attempting to remove the vermiculite insulation or hiring professionals to remove it if that is absolutely necessary.

EPA also has established a toll free number, 1-800-471-7127, for people to call if they have further questions.

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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