Insulation is a very important aspect of your home. In warm climates, it keeps the heat outside, and in cold climates, it keeps the heat inside. Insulation is used in many different locations in houses: inside walls and ceilings, around foundations, and in attic spaces. There are a variety of types and forms of insulation available, some of which are better suited for use in specific parts of a house. Unfortunately, nearly every type of insulation has been linked to a potential health hazard, yet with care in installation and material selection, a healthy house can (and should) contain insulation.
Today, most commercially available insulations are man-made. Most of today’s insulations can be used safely in a tightly constructed house where the insulation is well separated from the living space. Despite health concerns related to nearly all other building materials, insulation gets the most press coverage. This is largely due to the energy crisis of the 1970s in which urea-formaldehyde-foam insulation was responsible for elevated formaldehyde levels in some homes. As a result of health impacts, this product was banned and that type of insulation has disappeared from the market.
Loose-fill and blown-in insulations come in several forms. Some can simply be poured out of a bag, while others are blown through a special machine, and then through an applicator hose. Cellulose and chopped fiberglass are the most common types of loose fill and blown in insulation.
Sometimes the only way to insulate the walls of an existing house is to drill holes in the walls and blow insulation into the wall cavities. Existing attics can be insulated in a variety of ways, but blown-in insulations are often quicker and cheaper to install than batts. When carefully blown into sidewalls, insulation can help to tighten a house, thus minimizing infiltration while maximizing energy efficiency and comfort.
Fiberglass insulation comprises nearly 90% of the US market for home insulation. Fiberglass insulation, however, poses many health risks. Imagine what happens when a window is broken: the glass is extremely sharp and is very dangerous. Fiberglass insulation has the same effect on our lungs, skin, and eyes. The area exposed to fiberglass becomes itchy and irritated. If these small particles of glass become lodged in the lungs, serious respiratory conditions may result (Green Build). Much of the concern over the potential carcinogenic aspects of man-made mineral fibers relates to very small diameter fibers which can be inhaled. Fiberglass insulation is our least preferred type of insulation when upgrading homes because it is itchy and more expensive than cellulose insulation. It is important to understand that the exposure to fiberglass is not significantly risky unless you live near a production facility or work with it on a regular basis.
Chopped fiberglass is installed in a manner similar to that of cellulose. It is composed of small fibers of glass, but is loose in form so that it can be blown into wall cavities or attic spaces. Glass is inherently non-combustible and is not subject to being attacked by pests, so it does not need to be chemically treated like cellulose.
Many homes with forced air heating systems have leaks. Leaky ducts can suck in fiberglass particles and spread them around the house. In addition, the resins that are used to bond the fiberglass can also emit small amounts of toxic fumes. We say, "build it tight and ventilate it right," when it comes to home construction. By properly ventilating your home and bringing in fresh air, you can avoid sick home syndrome while minimizing your heating and cooling costs.
In most modern homes, however, the migration of fibers into the living space is negligible. In tightly constructed houses, insulation of all types is well separated from the occupants.
Cellulose insulation is largely made from post-consumer recycled newspaper. It is a very popular product today. Because newspaper is naturally combustible; cellulose insulation can be eaten by insects, fungi, or bacteria; and can be used as nesting material for rodents, This means that the insulation must be chemically treated, thus resulting in approximately 20% of the final product consisting of chemicals.
From a health standpoint, the various chemical additives can cause reactions in certain sensitive occupants. Symptoms vary greatly depending on the individual exposed. Because cellulose insulation is finely ground and powdery, it can filter through very small openings into the living space.
Cellulose insulation is often installed in existing wall cavities through small holes drilled in the exterior siding, which are plugged after the cavities are filled. Small gaps around electrical outlets can potentially be pathways for insulation to enter the living space of a house. In most cases, however, cellulose insulation is installed conscientiously and it remains inside building cavities, so it presents no health problems to the occupants. However, it is possible for amounts of the insulation to blow into the living space of an existing house during installation, meaning that installers must be careful to minimize such exposure, and then clean up thoroughly. New houses can also be insulated with cellulose, and if they are constructed tightly, the insulation will not be able to migrate into the living space.
Spray polyurethane foam is widely promoted as a green building material for its ability to improve energy efficiency. It insulates better per inch than fiberglass or cellulose, which can mean major energy savings. However, energy efficiency is not the only consideration when it comes to sustainable building. A close look at spray foam’s chemical makeup reveals a number of substances that are known to be hazardous (Treehugger.com).
The chemicals that spray polyurethane foam consists of create hazardous fumes during the application, which is why installers and nearby workers must wear personal protective equipment during the installation process. Once the foam has fully expanded and dried, however, it is inert.
However, it is important to remember that, if the chemicals are not properly mixed, they may not react fully and can remain toxic. In addition to the dangers associated with installation, the chemicals can potentially remain unreacted in the form of dust and shavings. This poses a risk when cutting or trimming the foam as it hardens, as well as when it is removed.
Many synthetic materials release toxic substances when heated and burned. (This is one of the reasons that fire fighters wear oxygen masks when entering a burning building.) During a fire, fiberglass insulation itself gives off little in the way of toxic gases. The resin involved in fiberglass, however, can decompose in a fire and produce small amounts of ammonia, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, carbon particulates, and traces of hydrogen cyanide. Facing materials can also give off toxic gases in a fire.
Energy conservation and insulation in particular, is often blamed for poor ventilation, indoor air pollution and, as a consequence, poor health. In this context, health issues are not directly due to the insulation, but are due to the failure to specify low-emissions furnishings and materials and to incorporate mechanical ventilation as part of the system.
Because there are no insulation available that are 100% safe, care should be taken to ensure that they are well separated from the living space. Tight construction techniques are the most effective means of separation to prevent both gases and particles from entering the home by air sealing the home from the attic space.
If you are concerned about your air quality or interested in having your air quality checked during our 41 point energy audit, schedule your $99 home check up here.
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