When it comes to hidden nasties inside your home or its construction, you are probably inclined to think firstly of highly dangerous asbestos and contaminating lead based paints. Some people are unaware, however, that there could be foam insulation health risks lurking behind their walls.
Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation, or UFFI is a common cause of unhealthy environments inside people’s homes. The quality of the air can be diminished when the foam ages inside the wall cavities and emits urea formaldehyde gases, certainly not beneficial to lungs.
What is UFFI?
UFFI was developed as an effective home insulation material back in the 1970’s and what made it so popular was that it could be used in existing homes, by being pumped into the wall cavities without having to alter the construction.
Its thermal insulation properties were highly valued and many consumers thought they were doing a wonderful thing by signing up for UFFI. Unfortunately, even the manufacturers were not aware at the time of the foam insulation health risks that would present years later.
Thanks to inappropriate moisture, mixture, temperature and pressure during installation, the curing process was hindered and the legacy is the emission of toxic gases for an unknown length of time. Testing can be done to identify the presence of urea formaldehyde gas and to measure the levels.
At 0.1 parts per million, the levels are considered worthy of alert based on national standards, and at 2 parts per million, abatement is mandatory to reduce the risk of ongoing foam insulation health risks.
Human Health Risks
Formaldehyde vapors irritate the eyes, upper respiratory tract and skin and skin can also be particularly sensitive to dilute solutions with which it comes into contact. Allergic contact dermatitis can result from direct contact but these incidences are rare because in homes, the most likely exposure is from gaseous formaldehyde levels.
Worryingly, laboratory tests on rodents have shown that prolonged exposure to high levels of the gases results in serious nasal irritation and even in the formation of tumors. Foam insulation health risks to humans have never resulted in any reported cancers, but this may be because the lab tests on rodents were conducted at far higher levels than that to which humans would be exposed in an ordinary home.
The health risks of foam insulation are likely to be more detrimental in infants, aged and sick people. But since periods of exposure vary greatly, it’s not feasible to set down any enforceable limits for exposure.
Formaldehyde has been classified as a human carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Two methods are used to test for UFFI presence or levels. Holes are drilled into walls and a visual examination is made. It results in immediate findings and must be done onsite.
The second method can be done independently of or in conjunction with the first. It involves the use of a gas dosimeter onsite to take measurements over a period of approximately one week and the results take around three weeks to process in a laboratory.
Once the health risks of the foam insulation are determined, steps can be taken if they are deemed necessary. Or, the findings could provide peace of mind for the owner either for his or her own occupation, or for the purpose of selling the home. Home buyers too should insist upon UFFI testing when considering buying homes from the 1970’s or later.