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Associated Press Danger levels unclear

SEATTLE (AP) - The Environmental Protection Agency has found cancer-causing asbestos in some lawn and garden products that contain vermiculite.

Although the EPA findings are preliminary and the danger levels unclear, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported Friday that the products tested were found to contain fibrous actinolite and tremolite, both classified as carcinogens by several government agencies.

Initial test results were confirmed in a second round of testing, the EPA's Keven McDermott told the newspaper.

The EPA declined to identify the specific brands tested, or to release the precise levels of asbestos found.

"I can only say that some of the samples showed asbestos at varying levels," said Phil Wong, who heads the EPA's investigation and engineering unit in Seattle that did the tests. Wong said the results are "being turned over to the risk assessment analysts, so we don't really know what the dangers are."

The EPA said weeks of additional testing need to be performed to determine how widespread and serious the problem is.

"I think it is cause for concern. There is no safe level of asbestos exposure," said Dr. Christine Oliver, assistant clinical professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, who has about 600 patients with asbestos-caused diseases.

None of the products tested carried labels warning consumers that they contained asbestos, the EPA said.

The Post-Intelligencer reported in November about a now-closed W.R. Grace & Co. mine in Libby, Mont., where more than 300 miners and their family members contracted fatal diseases including asbestosis, cancer and mesothelioma because of their exposure to tremolite asbestos fibers in the vermiculite ore.

The EPA's results confirm similar tests of several brands of potting soil, soil enhancers and vermiculite conducted by the newspaper from December through March as part of the Post-Intelligencer's ongoing investigation of asbestos dangers in the United States.

"We got numerous calls from citizens who had read about the deaths in Libby and asked if there was asbestos in garden products, will they be exposed to it and will they become sick from it," McDermott said.

"We answered two of the three questions. Yes, there is asbestos in some of the products. And, yes, in using the product the way many people do, asbestos can be released. The last question, will they be harmed if exposed to the asbestos, will have to be answered by the health experts," she says.

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