“Green” Spray Foam Insulation Could Be Filling Your Home With Toxic Chemicals

Written by Margaret Badore

This article is the first of a series examining the risks associated with spray polyurethane foam.

When Keri Rimel’s husband first came down with respiratory symptoms, he wasn’t sure what caused them. He had a sore throat, congested sinuses and runny eyes.g

The day before, he had visited the construction site of their new home, where a contractor was installing spray polyurethane foam insulation. He and the architect were in the same room as the installer. “He didn’t think anything of it,” said Keri Rimel.

Their house in Austin, Texas, was a new build. They had chosen Demilec’s Sealection 500 spray foam as the only insulation, and it filled every exterior wall cavity of the structure and the roof. Whenever he went back into the house, his symptoms would return.

“As soon as I went into the house, the smell would be overwhelming and my throat would clog up.”

Keri experienced symptoms herself when she visited the house. “As soon as I went into the house, the smell would be overwhelming and my throat would clog up,” she said. “I would get chest pain on the left side of my chest. That always happened.”

Spray foam is often touted as a green building material because of its high insulation value and tight seal, which can make homes more energy efficient. The American Resource and Recovery Act of 2009 promoted spray foam as a source of green jobs that provides energy efficiency. According to the industry group Spray Foam Coalition, sales increased 29 percent from the first half of 2010 to the first half of 2012. Another industry report predicts spray foam sales to increase by 15 percent annually.

Yet as more homes and buildings are insulated with spray foam, a growing number of consumer advocates and green builders are concerned about the growing use of a product made from a number of toxic components. At the same time, homeowners around the U.S. are reporting serious health issues following the installation of spray foam or moving into a new home insulated with spray foam.

Spray foam insulation is produced during installation by mixing two liquid chemical components, referred to as “Side A” and “Side B.” The liquid is then applied to the wall or ceiling with a spray gun, where it reacts and expands. Although there are toxicants in both Side A and Side B and installers are instructed to wear full body haz-mat suits, spray foam manufacturers say the final “cured” product is inert.

“The products are safe, There are no issues. The products become inert. There’s no long term effect and we have over 25 plus years of history in this marketplace.”

“We do standard [Volatile Organic Compound] analysis on all of the products that go to market,” said Robert Naini, the chief operating officer of Demilec, one of the largest manufactures of spray foam. “It’s lab testing done as part of our procedures.” Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are chemicals with negative health effects that off-gas from a variety of solid or liquid products. Naini said that all of their products meet several established guidelines for low-emissions products, including LEED standards, standards set by the California Department of Public Health, and GreenGuard certification.

“The products are safe,” said Naini. “There’s no issues. The products become inert. There’s no long term effect and we have over 25 plus years of history in this marketplace.”


Flickr/CC BY 2.0

According to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control, the issue of off-gassing is less clear-cut. The EPA recently launched a webpage dedicated to reducing the risk of chemical exposure from spray foam, which states, “The potential for off-gassing of volatile chemicals from spray polyurethane foam is not fully understood and is an area where more research is needed.”

Another issue is reentry time, or in other words, when is it safe to be around spray foam without protective garments after installation? The Centers for Disease Control is currently researching this question, but some manufacturers estimate as little as seven hours while others say as many as 72 hours. There are many factors that can impact curing rates, included the type of spray foam, the humidity, the thickness of the foam, the ambient temperature, the temperature of the chemicals and the technique of the installer.

“The potential for off-gassing of volatile chemicals from spray polyurethane foam is not fully understood and is an area where more research is needed.”

Whatever the conditions might have been, it was unsafe for Keri Rimel’s husband to be in the house at the time of installation without protective gear according to the majority of manufacturing guidelines. “No one told us to be out of the house,” said Keri.

Rimel said the lingering chemical odor caused their building project to come to a halt. She and her husband delayed installing drywall to conduct air quality tests and attempted to ventilate their house. Eventually, they concluded that the foam had to be removed after testing indoor air quality tests found unacceptable levels of of VOCs, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and hexanal. The written report from Argus Environmental, the company that conducted the testing, concluded that the Rimels should not occupy the home until the foam was removed.

But even after the spray foam had been removed, the chemical sensitization Keri and her husband suffer from made it impossible for them to stay in the house. “The fumes permeate everything,” said Rimel. Even tiny amounts of chemicals can trigger their symptoms. After months of being unable to find a satisfactory solution, they sold the property.

“This new source of exposure potentially puts a large population at risk for adverse health effects.”

In the March 2012 edition of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Dr. Yuh-Chin T. Huang and Dr. Wayne Tsuang describe a case similar to the Rimels. A couple in their 30′s returned to their home four hours after spray foam was installed in the attic. They almost immediately began experiencing difficult breathing, coughing, nausea, headaches and watery eyes.

The patients were diagnosed with asthma triggered by isocyanate, a chemical found in Side A and widely cited as the leading cause of occupational asthma. “The use of [spray polyurethane foam] in residential homes likely will continue to increase,” they write. “This new source of exposure potentially puts a large population at risk for adverse health effects.” The couple was eventually forced to leave their home after three months of trying to remediate both their symptoms and the lingering chemical odor.

Since publishing the article, Dr. Huang said he has been contacted by more than a dozen people who developed similar symptoms after being around spray foam. Although they call from around the country and he is not able to see them in person, he said they most arrive at the same conclusion. “They cannot move back to their houses.”

This post was originally published in TreeHugger

Photo Credit: Justin Filip

63 comments

Alsia T.
Past Member 1 years ago

I know this is quality based blogs along with other stuff.

http://thefifthfuel.com/crawl-space-insulation/

Alsia T.
Past Member 1 years ago

I know this is quality based blogs along with other stuff. http://thefifthfuel.com/crawl-space-insulation/

Tom Tree
Tom Tree2 years ago

SCARY STUFF !
Thank you for Sharing this!

Deb G.
Deb Gardiner3 years ago

After reading some of the other comments, I'd also like to add that I think it's natural that some people are skeptical about the dangers of spray foam insulation. BUT, if you use your brain, you'll find most of the chemical ingredients of spf are considered hazardous by OSHA, the EPA as well as other organizations, both national and international, and that implies more potential harm than causing just an allergic reaction. If you research the individual chems, you'll find some of them are known to cause, or suspected of causing, endocrine, reproductive and cardiovascular problems, among other issues, including cancer. Take formaldehyde, for example; formaldehyde has been classified as a known 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 (see www.cancer.org). And then there are the "trade secret" ingredients which are made up of a mixture of undisclosed chems... so think carefully here...

Deb G.
Deb Gardiner3 years ago

I am one of the people who have contacted Dr. Huang, in fact I drove to Raleigh to consult with him personally after I had spray foam insulation installed in the attic of our 1915 home last year. I had to move out 2 weeks later due to respiratory and neurological symptoms (and my cats also suffered from various symptoms of toxic exposure so I had to put them in boarding). For the following 2 months after that, every time I went in the house for 15-20 minutes, I would become disoriented and feel like I was going to collapse, and it took several hours before I'd feel "normal" again. It was terrifying, and I've also developed chemical sensitization due to exposure to the spf chemicals (the entire house smelled like a chemical factory), which has really been horrible and I've had to give up some of my work because of it. That was last year from July to September, and I haven't been living in the house since. That's the very condensed version of the story but it was and continues to be a nightmare for me. What began as what we thought was a way to have a more energy efficient home and also lower utilities bill has turned into financial ruin, and I'll probably end up homeless or living in a tent in the backyard because I can no longer afford to pay rent for the cheap apartment I've been renting for almost a year. There are so many people being affected like this by spray foam insulation, including children. It's just awful and it should be illegal to spray this stuff in anyone's ho

Margaret Goodman
Margaret Goodman3 years ago

The cigarette manufacturers claimed that nicotine was not addictive. They lied.

Now the foam industry claims that the foam is safe. I'm not believing that claim until it's substantiated by an independent disinterested study.

Phillipa W.
Phillipa W.3 years ago

yuck. I wouldn't want that in my house. While I'm all for using by-products and waste products, I'll pass on this one.

Sue H.
Sue H.3 years ago

Clearly, more study needs to be done on these products. Why the owners were allowed in the house during application is beyond me.

mary r.
Mary R.3 years ago

Thank you for sharing this important information. Another case of BUYER BEWARE !

Syd Henley
Syd H.3 years ago

It is not just spray on wall insulation that can cause this health problem.
Several years ago, we had a lot of modernisation work carried out on our 1920s house here in England. The local authority gave a grant to assist with this work and demanded that we had chemical injection damp proofing carried out in order to qualify for the grant.
We did this and for about six months after it had been done, the whole family suffered from sore throats, blocked sinuses, shivering fits (even though it was in the summer) and other sever influenza type symptoms. Even visitors who stayed more than an hour or so commented on the chemical smell and suffered minor discomfort. The family doctor reached the conclusion that there was nothing physically wrong with any of us and that our symptoms were due to the off-gassing of the chemicals used.
The injection damp proofing was a waste of time and totally unnecessary, as before it was done we had never had rising damp (we owned the house since it was built) but after the treatment, we have had sever problems with rising damp.