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If you lived within two miles of the old, downtown Salt Lake City vermiculite plants, your chances of getting lung cancer were about 50 percent higher than if you had lived somewhere else in the state.

That's the finding of a study begun six years ago on the health impacts of two plants that for more than four decades processed vermiculite, a home insulation and soil additive that used to be wildly popular until it became known it contained dangerous levels of highly toxic asbestos.

Wayne Ball, the Utah Department of Health's lead epidemiologist, cautioned that the data have too many quirks to conclude that the asbestos-riddled plants caused the unexpected respiratory cancers.

But he added: "This [information] doesn't rule it out one way or the other."

The report raises an alarm for the first time in Utah about the potential risks posed by the defunct plants and their products to the tens of thousands of Utahns who lived close to them.

It comes a few weeks before the state Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launch a search for people who may have been exposed to the asbestos working in the plants or living in the neighborhoods surrounding them.

And it comes more than two years after state and federal emergency crews spent $7.1 million on low-profile, little publicized Superfund cleanups of both sites.

The EPA has been doing an emergency cleanup since 1999 of the northwestern Montana town of Libby that sent vermiculite ore to the Salt Lake City processing plant. Addressing asbestos from vermiculite ore mine, processing plants and neighborhoods has cost more than $173 million.

The deaths of more than 200 workers, their family members and their neighbors have been blamed on the dangerous Libby vermiculite and thousands more are ill. The company behind the vermiculite mine and most of its processing plants, W.R. Grace, faces both criminal and civil lawsuits.

Neither EPA nor Utah officials could explain why the search for Utah victims did not begin seven years ago, when the first traces of Libby asbestos were identified at the old Salt Lake City plant sites.

"All I can say is that we just didn't do it sooner," said Son¬ya Pennock, a public affairs official at EPA's Denver office.

The health department used data from the U.S. census and the Utah Cancer Registry for the study. It identified about 70,000 people who lived in the 2-mile radius around both plants and traced their cancer incidence in 28 years.

A look at all asbestos-related cancers, including lung cancer, showed unexpectedly high rates. While elsewhere in Utah, about 715 cases could be expected in an area of that size, this area had 1,057 over the same period.

However, findings on mesothelioma, a deadly cancer tied to asbestos exposure, were inconclusive, said Ball.

The cancer registry showed 16 cases of mesothelioma within the 2-mile radius between 1973 and 2000. But, based on statewide data, about 26 cases would be expected.

Ball said even with the increased overall cancer rate, it is not clear that the plants are at fault. For instance, researchers had no information about how many of the area's residents smoked cigarettes, which is another key risk factor for lung cancer.

Another big gap in the data is that they don't include the people most likely to have suffered the worst exposure: the workers. Neither the EPA nor state health officials could find pay stubs or employee logs from the two plants that would have allowed them to track down people who worked there during 46 years of operation.

Draper resident Ralph Blevins took a $1.95-an-hour job at the Utah Lumber plant for about6

six months 45 years ago. He has asbestosis, an incurable lung disease unique to asbestos exposure that hardens the lung and often makes breathing excruciating.

He was happy to hear about the study and the proposed outreach program. "We've got to warn people about it," he said.

The environment agencies want to hear from other former employees and people who may have taken waste dust from the plant to use for improving their garden soil.

* Vermiculite processing took place in downtown Salt Lake City from 1941 to 1987.

* A plant at 333 W. 100 South, located at the old Utah Lumber yard, handled vermiculite ore from 1941-1985.

* The plant moved to 733 W. 800 South, took the name Intermountain Products, and bagged vermiculite to insulate homes, enhance soils and for other uses between 1986 and 1987.

* A mine in Libby, Mont., supplied the Salt Lake City plants with 50,000 tons of vermiculite ore that contained microscopic bundles of an especially toxic form of asbestos.

* State and federal environmental officials do not have a reliable estimate of how many people were exposed to the tainted vermiculite at home and work. Nationwide, vermiculite is thought to have been used in about 35 million homes.

* For more information, contact the EPA at 800-227-8917 or the DEQ at 536-4424. Additional information is available at the web site: http://www.airquality.utah.gov/HAPs/ASBESTOS/index.htm