Helpful? 0

Out-gassing of bad stuff from spray foam insulation

Hi folks,
We are in design for a new home for a chemically sensitive family. It's looking like the best approach for insulating this house will be spray foam to the underside of the roof deck, and treat the attic as part of AC space. However, my customer is concerned about the potential for the family breathing in bad stuff that gradually out-gases from the foam over time. I need to respond to that concern with specific information that is well backed up. I'm beginning my research with you guys. All advice welcome.

Asked by Dan Fette
Posted Thu, 09/03/2009 - 11:34
Edited Wed, 02/17/2010 - 06:30

Tags:

154 Answers

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
1.
Helpful? 0

Dan,
Most of the information on this subject that is available online is provided by the spray polyurethane industry. It is reasonable to expect that information from the industry will downplay potential hazards.

That said, you may be interested in this site:
http://www.foam-tech.com/faq/faq_urethane.htm

Here is the relevant passage:

"Question: Do urethanes "outgas" and are they toxic?"

"Answer: Urethanes are non-toxic and only require protection for our operators during installations, but the finished product is completely safe and has no formaldehydes. Demilec had an independent testing laboratory test their HEATLOK product for off-gassing. They tested the product using the Underwriters Laboratory of Canada 705.1-98 test method. It is a pass/fail test, where the estimated indoor air concentration of volatile organic compounds is compared to the permissible concentrations. The permissible concentration is defined as 1% of the threshold limit value. The off-gassing for the HEATLOK product was under the permissible concentrations so they passed the test."

Here is another Foam-Tech page with an excerpt from a JAMA article:
http://www.foam-tech.com/products/urethane_foam/ama_toxicity.htm

A relevant passage reads, "A fully cured polyurethane foam contains no residual isocyanate or polyol and, in contrast to the urea formaldehyde foams, presents no problems of bleed-off of toxic products. Only fully cured panels are used in home insulation, and there have been no reports of human toxicity caused by this insulation material."

Answered by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor
Posted Thu, 09/03/2009 - 12:45

2.
Helpful? 0

Thanks, Martin. Very helpful.

Answered by Dan Fette
Posted Fri, 09/04/2009 - 09:48

3.
Helpful? 0

HI, I completed an uber-green building project two years ago using closed-cell polyurethane, non-toxic wood finishes (Bioshield and Waterlux), and shockingly I actually DEVELOPED chemical sensitivity sometime during the build. I became ill after moving into the house two years ago, and had to move out. Any exposure to the indoor air induces neurological symptoms. I don't know to what extent the foam is the culprit, but the airtightness it creates (yes I have an HVAC system) seems to amplify the effects of any present substances. For example, one of the builders used an epoxy sealer in the basement, and I could smell it immediately in the floor above, on the other side of the house. I've done numerous tests on the home and on myself, and don't know the answer. I never had these sorts of problems before that I know of.

I would be interested in learning of any foam off-gassing that occurs under NON-ideal conditions, say if the foam were incorrectly applied, if the material was damaged in some way, or upon exposure to high temperatures generated by metal roofing and sun exposure. I don't think I was exposed during application, but there was a lot of foam applied, and as I was living on the property in a different building, could have received some air-born exposure which led to sensitization.

I also wonder if there are any other occupants out there who have had some kind of exposure issues. There is a preponderance of industry information, but very little about user-experience post-build. I think this is an important subject bearing further exploration, and I commend you for opening up the discussion.

Thank you.

Answered by Anonymous
Posted Wed, 11/25/2009 - 09:51

4.
Helpful? 0

There hasn't been sufficient research into the health impacts of spray urethane insulation. One early study from the National Research Council of Canada detailed several potential problems http://nparc.cisti-icist.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/npsi/ctrl?action=rtdoc&an=533043.... A primary concern of the author was that two-part urethane foam is a site-fabricated material that is dependent on multiple environmental factors that are difficult to control outside a factory, and that it is vulnerable to high heat and humidity conditions (such as might be encountered in a hot roof).

A current study comparing the indoor formaldehyde levels in tight homes with controlled ventilation vs conventional homes with natural ventilation, found that there was no statistical difference - in other words, by this measure, a controlled-ventilation home does not have improved IAQ ("Measured Formaldehyde in High Performance Homes with Outdoor Air Intakes"). Formaldehyde is often the trigger for multiple chemical sensitivity, and is found in many building materials and furnishings as well as in combustion gasses and cigarette smoke.

Given what we know about the environmental and human toxicity of most petrochemical plastics (and the 80,000 petrochemicals that we've introduced into the environment), I believe it would be foolish to use foam insulation in a home for the chemically-sensitive.

In addition to the known toxicity during application (http://www.americanchemistry.com/s_api/bin.asp?CID=2319&DID=10128&DOC=FI...) and the potential unknown health impacts during occupancy, spray foam creates a hermetically-sealed home that cannot breathe (transpire moisture) as all natural materials do. The non-hygroscopic nature of plastics means that humidity control is more difficult and relies completely on mechanical ventilation or dehumidification. Increased levels of humidity contribute not only to mold growth but also to outgassing of formaldehydes.

I would suggest considering environmentally-friendly, non-toxic, fire-resistant, insect-proof, rodent-resistant, and mold-resistant cellulose, which is also significantly hygroscopic and assists with natural moisture management (as long as the thermal envelope can breath - i.e. no vapor barriers).

Answered by Robert Riversong
Posted Wed, 11/25/2009 - 13:17

5.
Helpful? 0

Nice response, Robert. Thank you.

Answered by Anonymous
Posted Wed, 11/25/2009 - 15:13

6.
Helpful? -1

Anony Mouse, how 'bout telling us your name?

Answered by Robert Riversong
Posted Wed, 11/25/2009 - 17:35

7.
Helpful? 1

Anonymous,
I'm glad you have an HVAC system. Most houses do.

Does your HVAC system include a mechanical ventilation system? If so, what type is it? Exhaust-only, supply-only, or balanced? Plenty of homes with HVAC systems are poorly ventilated.

In most parts of the country, a residential HVAC system simply means a furnace with an air conditioner. Such systems usually include no provision for mechanical ventilation.

Answered by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor
Posted Thu, 11/26/2009 - 06:10

8.
Helpful? 0

The following information was excerpted from EPA’s new website on Spray Polyurethane Foam (SPF) and green buildings at http://www.epa.gov/greenbuilding/pubs/highlights.htm#foamease

Federal Partnership Focuses on Improving Safe Use of Spray Polyurethane Foam.

Spray polyurethane foam (SPF) insulation is a highly effective weatherization product that is playing an important role in national efforts to dramatically increase the energy efficiency of our homes, schools, and buildings. However, SPF foam contains diisocyanates, and dermal or inhalation exposure to these chemicals can cause significant health risks, such as asthma and lung damage, if specific workplace precautions are not followed during product application and clean-up. Risks also may apply to building occupants who may remain on-site during or re-enter shortly after application.

On December 2nd EPA will host a Webinar on “What You Need to Know about the Safe Use of Spray Polyurethane Foam” : EPA is hosting an open SPF Insulation Workshop on December 2, 2009, from 1 pm to 3 pm, EST. The Federal panel will include speakers from EPA, NIOSH, OSHA, and CPSC. The industry panel will be represented by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the Spray Polyurethane Foam Association (SPFA).

The EPA keeps archives of webinars available on their web page.

Answered by Phil Smith
Posted Wed, 12/02/2009 - 10:46

9.
Helpful? 0

I have been working with high performance homes (homes insulated with open cell spray foam) for over 5 years. I have found that the keys to ensuring a healthy home begin with a right sized HVAC system with a well designed duct layout, proper ventilation, both supply and exhaust and a detailed inspection of the building envelope before and after the insulation has been installed. Other than that, be aware if other products installed in the home. Homes can be made very tight using other undulation products as well. People always look at the foam as being "the culprit" of off gassing concerns. Look at the paints and the adhesives and even the lumber used. All new construction products off gas. It all goes back to, "is the home properly ventilated?". A tight constructed home, (less than .35ach) should ALWAYS have controlled ventilation. The type of ventilation used depends on what climate the home is located in.
By the way, I have had no complaints on the homes I have been involved with.
Hope this helps. Good luck.

Answered by Anonymous
Posted Wed, 12/02/2009 - 10:55

10.
Helpful? -1

First to avoid the off gasing you need to use open cell spray foam. The closed cell not only will off gas, but can shrink as well. Now the next then to look for is a open cell product that is 100% water blown, reducing the chemicals altogether. One other issue depending on your area is to make sure the foam allows the water to pass through with out any absorbtion. Last and maybe most important, make sure the installers are a dealer that is 100% back by the manufacture. If not this could cause issues with warranty. The foam is the right direction for a more energy efficient home!
Al, HERS Certified, BPI Certified.

Answered by Al
Posted Wed, 12/02/2009 - 11:19

11.
Helpful? 3

Dan:

I am a member of the Federal Interagency Spray Polyurethane Foam (SPF) Workgroup and Co-Chair of the EPA SPF Workgroup. The mission of these federal groups is to ensure the knowledgable and safe use of SPF, a valuable insulating material.

Spray polyurethane foam (SPF) insulation, both open cell and closed cell, is made from diisocyanates (50% of the formulation), polyol oils, amine catalysts, flame retardants and blowing agents (the other half of the formulation). Dissocyanates are the leading cause of work place asthma and are a well-known sensitizing toxicant to humans. Once an individual becomes sensitized to diisocyanates there may be no safe exposure level. Sensitization can occur from excessive and/or chronic respiratory and dermal exposures. Diisocyanates are odorless. The amine catalysts (which have an odor) and the blowing agents, can also have health impacts, but these are used in smaller quantities in the formulations. When installing SPF using high pressure and temperature spraying, unsafe levels of these chemicals are released into the air in the building or home. This is why NIOSH and OSHA are recommending full personal protective equipment (PPE) including fresh air supplied hooded respirators for workers and helpers doing the installation. NIOSH, OSHA and EPA recomend that un-protected workers or occupants leave the building when spraying is being done and not return until all residual vapors are ventilated and all dust particles (from shaving the finished foam) are cleaned up to safe levels. The exact timing of this is not known for each specific building application as this depends on the amount of vapors and particles generated to begin with, the amount and type of ventilation, the size and configuration of the building, the foam curing factors and the installation and clean up techniques of the workers. EPA, NISOH and OSHA consider this an area that needs further quantitative research. These chemicals can also migrate to other parts of the building, such as a floor where the foam was not sprayed. This is why NIOSH and OSHA are recommending containment and positive ventilation of the vapors out of a building when spraying is ongoing. Whether or not there remains off-gasing from the finished foam that was applied days or months earlier that could affect sensitive, or sensitized individuals who occupy the building, is also a question I believe requires further investigation. EPA's current thinking is that once properly cured, ventilated and cleaned up, and enclosed behind wallboard or roofing materials, residual off-gasing at unsafe levels is not very likely. However, there are reports on the internet by some individuals that days, even months after installation of SPF they could still smell lingering odors from the material. I have personally inspected a large attic in a home that was sprayed with open cell foam on the underside of the roof (and left uncovered) weeks before I visited. Upon my entry into the attic, I could detect a distinct chemical odor. This was the same odor I sensed when I watched the real time spraying of closed cell foam in another house. Exactly what was causing this odor and whether or not it is unsafe, is another question I believe needs further research.

Answered by William Swietlik
Posted Wed, 12/02/2009 - 12:40

12.
Helpful? 0

Thank you all for your responses. It's all very helpful.

Answered by Dan Fette
Posted Wed, 12/02/2009 - 18:15

13.
Helpful? 0

Unfortunately, a member of my family has recently experienced a very dire situation with the installation of Icynene in his new home under construction . The off-gassing of the fumes from this product have caused him to have severe lung problems (never experienced any lung problems before installation of the Icynene and he was in the house all the time because he did the construction himself). He is being told that he will probably have to sell his half-finished home which he has saved his entire life for and put his entire life savings into. I think a class action lawsuit is in order (to the person in comment #3 above). Too many people are experiencing problems from this stuff. And to Mr. William Swietlik, it was a EPA person who told him he would probably have to sell his home. Do these Federal agencies that are supposed to help protect us even care enough to intervene when consumers have problems? My brother is almost 66 years old and he doesn't have time or money to start over. This has essentially ruined his life.

Answered by Marlene
Posted Mon, 01/18/2010 - 12:21

14.
Helpful? 0

Dan Fette: "It's looking like the best approach for insulating this house will be spray foam to the underside of the roof deck, and treat the attic as part of AC space."

Dan,
It is very ironic that you are considering including the attic as part of the AC space.
I remember that when you toured my home (with conditioned attic) you planted a seed in my head.
You reminded me that including the attic increased the surface area of the enclosure.

While almost everyone in North Texas was turning to spray foam and conditioned attics...
You were the only one I know of who was exploring other methods of air sealing.

I realize that your motive was partly because you had no other options...
You were building Affordable Low Energy Homes.
Spray Foam and conditioned attics are not cheap.

I have done a 180 since we last talked and I believe that you were on the Right Track Before.

For those who may not know Dan Fette ..... He is THE force behind Green Built Texas

Now Dan......get back on the right track!!!

John

Answered by John Brooks
Posted Fri, 08/10/2012 - 16:23
Edited Fri, 08/10/2012 - 16:23.

15.
Helpful? 0

Marlene,

I'm sorry to hear about your brother's reaction to the blowing agents of Icynene. But, if he was building his own home, he should have taken responsibility for vacating the house for three days while the foam cured, as is required at all construction sites with spray foam. Applicators are required to use charcoal respirators and no other workers or occupants should be in the building.

It's a terrible thing to suffer from chemical sensitivity, but one cannot blame others for one's own failure of due diligence.

Answered by Riversong
Posted Wed, 02/17/2010 - 13:58

16.
Helpful? 0

Hi John,
I haven't sold out. In the case I've described, in order to do all the things my customer wants it appears at least a portion of the house will have to have a sealed attic.

Dan

Answered by Dan Fette
Posted Wed, 02/17/2010 - 14:32

17.
Helpful? 0

We recently experienced a roof and wall insulation retrofit using low-density spray foam, Demilec Sealection 500, in a 95-year old house in Oregon where there is a strong odor two months after installation. It is a somewhat sweet ammonia-like smell.
8" SPF was sprayed to the exposed underside of the roof sheathing in the attic and crawlspace, and the rim joists in the basement. A low-rise mix was blown into to the exterior walls from the interior since siding conditions made external access impractical.
The odor is strongest in the attic and crawlspace and spreads into the second floor area through small penetrations in the ceiling and attic hatch. Installation was done in med-December with temps in the 40's.
The occupants have been running a fan in the second floor bathroom 24/7 since installation and cracking a bedroom window to negatively pressurize the house and ventilate the sleeping area. The attic hatch has occasionally been left open to the second floor open during the day to provide some ventilation of the attic air.
Some sources have suggested that an improper mixing of the A and B components during installation can cause this. Two spray foam discussion threads suggest that too much amine catalyst in the B component of the foam can emit odors for long periods of time. Some have suggested it may be cause to remove and re-install the foam, others disagree:
http://www.sprayfoam.com/mnps/fullthread.cfm?threadid=9394&mnboardid=5&m...
and
http://www.sprayfoam.com/mnps/fullthread.cfm?threadid=8256&mnboardid=5&m...
Much of the published information regarding low density spray foams addresses the low- or non- toxicity of "properly cured" or "properly installed" foams; little seems to be said about what constitutes a improper curing or installation, what chemicals can be released, what hazards (if any) may be present, and what remedies are appropriate.

Answered by David Posada
Posted Mon, 02/22/2010 - 15:08

18.
Helpful? -3

David,

What you describe is one of many potential liabilities of this latest "miracle" product. Spray polyurethane foams are best used in a controlled factory environment. There are simply too many variables in the field setting, including climatic conditions and the competence of the installer.

Answered by Riversong
Posted Mon, 02/22/2010 - 23:11

19.
Helpful? 0

If your new home HAS a chemically smell and you suspect off-gassing from spray foam, how to you test for it?

Answered by Elizabeth E.
Posted Wed, 02/24/2010 - 09:40

20.
Helpful? 0

A few years ago, I thought that closed cell spray foam was a great concept. Now I don't see it that way any more - too risky, esp. for existing homes (and existing living habits). Having been in the green remodeling business for a decade, I believe that we are now paying for the fact that 75 percent of any conversation about "green" is always about energy efficiency. I think it's high time to focus on the health implications a lot more than we currently do.

Answered by Matt Dirksen
Posted Wed, 02/24/2010 - 15:28

21.
Helpful? 0

Spray polyurethane foams are best used in a controlled factory environment. There are simply too many variables in the field setting, including climatic conditions and the competence of the installer. Answered Robert Riversong

What would be good alternatives to spray foam for sealed attic construction?

DC

Answered by D C
Posted Wed, 02/24/2010 - 17:33

22.
Helpful? 1

Cheers and kudos to you for reaching out to learn more.

I have MCS and my building materials consultant won't allow her clients to use spray foam insulation of any kind--they all contain flame retardants, which are highly toxic. I know of four different cases of people (who relied soley on 'green' building materials and practices) who couldn't live in their homes that they'd intended to heal in.

As the foam ages, the flame retardant expands as a gas, releasing into the space it occupies. Flame retardants are getting some eye-catching attention in the news lately. All kinds of studies about just how toxic. Put that in a home for someone with MCS? For my money, why tempt fate when there are healthier products, known quantities, already tested and on the market? It may seem frumpy compared to our heroic spray foams, but good ol' cotton batting is a very reasonable choice. One builder told me that because of its density, it actually has a higher R-value than it's actually rated for.

For all our good Green intentions, Green still does not equal healthy. Unless all the products used in construction of a home for someone with MCS are researched in advance for toxicity, insulation is only one of the issues placing your building project at risk for your clients. There's sub-flooring to consider. Glues. Glazes. Box construction of cabinetry. Paint. Sealants. Urethanes. Petroleum on the forms you pour the home's foundation with. The list is long. But perhaps you already know this.

Forgive me, but if you don't know it, consider these issues, too:

Unless all subs working on the job are willing to sign a legal document stating that they'll only use the materials spec'd in advance, there's yet another level of risk of contamination.

Plus, no fuel generators inside the home while its being constructed. And, go to your laundry room and read the labels of the products you wash your clothes with. If they are scented (including detergents, softeners and dryer sheets)--many builders and trades people use highly scented laundry products and aren't aware of it because someone else is doing their laundry--you are not only steeping in neurotoxins yourself and exposing yourself to as many as 60+ cancer-causing agents, you are also contaminating the very space you're trying to make safe for your client and making it very difficult for your client to be in conversation with you.

Answered by Julia
Posted Wed, 02/24/2010 - 20:20

23.
Helpful? 0

Julia: "Green still does not equal healthy"

I would put it differently. If it's not healthy, to the human and animal occupants and to the surrounding environment and to the local community-based economy, then it's not "green".

Answered by Riversong
Posted Wed, 02/24/2010 - 22:15

24.
Helpful? -3

DC: "What would be good alternatives to spray foam for sealed attic construction?"

If by "sealed attic" you mean an air-tight cathedral ceiling, my preference is to avoid them but you can use any insulation material with air-tight drywall (which is the industry standard for air barrier materials). But I would ventilate any cathedral ceiling for durability, reduction of summer radiant gain, moisture control and elimination of ice dams.

Cathedral ceilings are aesthetic amenities which don't make much sense from a hygro-thermal engineering perspective. They enlarge the heated volume, increase the area of the thermal envelope, cause air temperature stratification and increase the stack effect pressures.

If by "sealed attic" you mean an unoccupied attic to contain HVAC equipment or ducts, there's always a better place to locate such equipment within the conditioned space. All it takes is clever design.

Answered by Riversong
Posted Wed, 02/24/2010 - 22:22

25.
Helpful? 0

"If by "sealed attic" you mean an unoccupied attic to contain HVAC equipment. . ."
Answered by Robert Riversong

I do mean an unoccupied attic. It will contain ductwork only, the mechanical equipment will be in a closet. The attic will also be used to some extent for dust free insulated but not conditioned storage, especially over the garage. I live in a tornado area (see my Q&A post about ventilation for climate information). Some of my research suggests un-vented attic spaces are stronger when subjected to the high winds of tornadoes and hurricanes. As I plan to use ICF construction, I want the roof structure as strong as possible as well. I don't have unlimited funds so am looking for the best bang for the buck approach to have a solid, healthy, energy efficient structure. Would appreciate any advice you and others have on this.

DC

Answered by D C
Posted Wed, 02/24/2010 - 23:21

26.
Helpful? 1

DC,
In the north, we put our ductwork in the basement, not the attic. Builders down South assume, from tradition, that there's something about Southern soils that makes basements difficult. But there's usually no reason that you can't build a basement in Texas and Florida -- except perhaps for the strange fact that few contractors know how to do it.

To keep ducts within the conditioned space, it's also possible to build soffits near the ceiling. Be sure you get your air-sealing details right, though. And plan for high ceilings if you don't like the furred-down look.

Answered by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor
Posted Thu, 02/25/2010 - 05:49

27.
Helpful? 0

To all,
This is turning into quite a conversation. Thanks for all the input.

Answered by Dan Fette
Posted Thu, 02/25/2010 - 14:13

28.
Helpful? 0

Paper or Plastic?
In a recent retrofit, we grappled with the cellulose vs. spray foam question and felt both choices involved compromises when trying to balance performance (insulation, airsealing, moisture management), environmental impact (material source, embodied energy & emissions), occupant health, cost, quality control, and the spatial quirks of the particular house.

Context:
90-year old house, 1400 sf, 2 stories with low attic, gable roof and two shed dormers. 2x4 rafters, 10-year old aluminum shingle roof over OSB sheathing with no venting at eaves, and aluminum siding. Roof sheathing was open to the attic except in three “cathedral” ceiling sections over walk-in closets and stairwell, where the plaster & lathe ceiling is the underside of unvented 2x4 rafter bays. No wall insulation, 1-2” cedar bark insulation on attic flats. Knob and tube wiring ran along the attic flats and in a few outside wall locations. Forced air heating with all but one duct riser located in interior walls. Initial blower door test was ~12 air changes per hour at -50 pa. Location: Oregon, 4400 Heating degree days.

We felt cellulose offered several environmental advantages over foam. Cellulose would be dense-packed in the walls and cathedral ceiling sections, blown in from the interior. The knob and tube wiring in the attic would need to be replaced and cellulose blown onto the attic flats. The main drawbacks we saw: 1, the difficulty of providing good airsealing, especially in the complex and hard-to-reach areas of the attic and roof-wall-dormer intersections, and 2, risk of condensation on an organic substance in the unvented cathedral ceiling sections. The 3.5” depth of the rafter bays made venting there seem impractical. The cost of rewiring the attic and loss of a low storage area was also drawback.

On the spray foam side, high density foam would have a greater r-value, especially in the 3.5” stud and rafter cavities, but appeared to have a worse environmental footprint from materials and blowing agents, higher off-gassing during and possibly after installation, and the risk of trapping any moisture against the underside of the roof sheathing.

Low density, vapor permeable, foam had a lower cost and better blowing agents than the closed cell foam, and would provide better air sealing than the cellulose. We wondered if condensation could still be a risk in the unvented cathedral sections. A local engineer advised that risk was very low given the inorganic material and lack of air movement within the foam. The cost was close to cellulose, and by spraying the underside of the roof sheathing the attic storage could be maintained within the thermal boundary. Still, there was the concern of spraying long-lasting, hard to remove petro-chemicals, but the condensation and airsealing issues tipped the balance toward the foam. Off gassing health risks appeared to be low.

The post-installation blower door test showed the ACH had been reduced to 5.1, close to the high performance homes standard, and considerably lower than many local retrofits done with cellulose and caulking for airsealing. A utility-sponsored rater used an infrared camera to verify if stud and rafter bays had been adequately filled with foam. In several spots foam was then reblown through new holes to fill some gaps found. This points to the challenge of getting a uniform and complete layer of foam in a retrofit, where blocking and debris can obstruct the path of the foam.

Speaking with the manufacturer and installer about the chemical odor in the attic two months after install prompted some suggestions we’re going to explore: activated charcoal filters with a recirculation fan to scrub the catalyst odor from the sealed space, and possibly barrier paint on the underside of the foam. We’ve been told there are no tests for the chemical concentrations in the attic as the tertiary amines in the catalyst are not considered toxic.
In making these inevitable compromises, I see design decisions as hypotheses about what’s the best solution to a complex problem given the resources at hand. Building science can’t tell you everything you’d like to know, and will always be an evolving mix of consensus, observations, interpretation and opinion.

Answered by David Posada
Posted Fri, 02/26/2010 - 17:33

29.
Helpful? 0

David
Thanks for the thorough response.

Answered by Dan Fette
Posted Fri, 02/26/2010 - 19:03

30.
Helpful? 1

Building science can’t tell you everything you’d like to know, and will always be an evolving mix of consensus, observations, interpretation and opinion.

In fact, Building Science ignores the most important thing: that homes are for human habitation. The health of the occupants (as well as the health of the environment which supports human and non-human life) must always take precedence over energy efficiency (which is now required only because of our over-reliance on science and its handmaiden, technology).

Common sense (if it were only truly common anymore) can tell you a great deal that science doesn't even comprehend. Natural materials should always be preferred over the 80,000 petrochemicals we've introduced into the world (245 million tons per year), including the 17,000 available for home use, only 30% of which have ever been tested for safety.

Answered by Riversong
Posted Fri, 02/26/2010 - 22:28

31.
Helpful? 0

Here here, Robert.

Consider this, too: We now know the breadth of health hazards in the following once-standard building materials: lead (paint), PCBs (plastic pipe), asbestos (shingles, insulation), among others. It is safe to assume that as well-intentioned, and sometimes arrogant, as our green community is, we're still on a learning curve.

It's also safe to assume that just as manufacturers knew of the health hazards sometimes decades before the public knew, we are not immune to corruption and greed just because we're 'green.,' though we might like to think we're different or better because of it.

To get back to Dan's original question about building for people with MCS in particular: The flame retardants in the blown-in/spray foam insulations are problematic for humans, and have no place for people with MCS whose immune systems are compromised and cannot defend against the chemicals--even if they're in sealed off spaces. There is some evidence to suggest that flame retardants work their way into the particulate matter (dust) in homes over time, no matter how sealed off they are.

Building for people with MCS is not like building for anybody else you'll build for. If you're not prepared to alter the way you think about building--the priority is health not carbon footprint--then one should be prepared to walk away from the job.

It will be a wonderful moment in the building industry when green equals healthy. We're not there yet.

There are a host of other areas of the house you'll want to pay close attention to, when building for people with MCS, right from the foundation up, but that's for another discussion thread.

Answered by Julia
Posted Sat, 02/27/2010 - 02:10

32.
Helpful? 0

As a recent purchaser of a spray foam insulation product for use during a kitchen remodel, I'd like to throw my two cents in here regarding things to watch out for if the decision is made to use it for insulation in a residential space. My house is in Southern California, which requires R-30 insulation minimum in the ceiling. Part of the remodel included the creation of a cathedral ceiling, but as the rafters were 2x6, insulation offerings that could meet the R-30 requirement were extremely limited. A 5 inch thick SPF installation won out after comparing all the various factors (in this case, the product used was BASF Comfort Foam 178).

After all has been said and done, I have to concur with the previous comment about SPF being something best left to carefully controlled factory production settings. The BASF product seems like it probably does everything it's supposed to... provided it's installed correctly. That's the big variable, and one that in my opinion makes me feel as though SPF was the wrong choice. The installer sprayed too aggressively during installation, exceeding the manufacturer's stated maximum of 2 inches per pass. The end result (as explained to me by tech support at BASF) is that the deeper layers overheat during curing, resulting in a discolored and insufficiently dense foam that smells of rotten fish (a result of the amines in the product offgassing, or so I'm told). The only solution offered by BASF is that the installer needs to remove the foam and respray if the smell doesn't dissipate in a reasonable span of time. It's been several weeks of constant forced ventilation of the SPF, and the smell is still there, even after one pass at removing and respraying a section the installer confessed wasn't sprayed right from the beginning.

In short, as just a regular homeowner trying to make the right decision of what to install without having any sort of trustworthy professional guidance available other than what I can find online, I severely regret the choice to go with a sprayed-in foam product. Removing it is a nightmare due to the presence of electrical wiring that was encased in the foam during the install, plus all the expected delays associated with a construction step gone awry. I would absolutely steer any other people away from products such as this, unless they know exactly what they're doing and what they're getting into. The person in tech support at BASF put it best when he said that BASF doesn't sell insulating foam, they just sell the two chemicals that an installer mixes to make the foam. That makes for a huge margin of error relating to human factors that, if they occur, are too late in the process to be easily corrected. It's the sort of "if" I wish had fully understood before I went this route, because had I fully understood the variables, I simply wouldn't have done it.

Answered by B. Kolodziej
Posted Wed, 03/10/2010 - 20:20

33.
Helpful? 1

B. Kolodziej,
Thanks for sharing your valuable story — a cautionary tale for sure.

Answered by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor
Posted Thu, 03/11/2010 - 05:24

34.
Helpful? 0

Oh man, I just prepped my camp for BASF SF. Sealed up the ridge and eaves with tar paper and everything.. It has a sleeping loft open concept with exposed cathedral celings...

After reading this I'm going to completely change my direction. I'll do cellulose for the walls but the question is, what to do about the cathedral celings??

Answered by eggman
Posted Sun, 03/14/2010 - 10:19

35.
Helpful? 0

Eggman - I thought I would toss out that B. Kolodziej's story seems to be one of installation error only and does not necessarily mean there is a problem with the product. Almost any building product, when installed improperly can be a nightmare for the homeowner.

Answered by D C
Posted Sun, 03/14/2010 - 21:20

36.
Helpful? 0

What an amazing read from top to bottom. Thank you for the info!

Answered by Daniel Neufeld
Posted Mon, 03/15/2010 - 17:02

37.
Helpful? 1

D C: What's to stop an installer from doing the same thing to me? Luck I guess... I just can't take a chance with my family. The cons out weigh the pros on this one for me...

Answered by eggman
Posted Mon, 03/15/2010 - 20:12

38.
Helpful? 0

D C - To confirm your statement, yes, the core problem (according to the manufacturer, at least) is installer error. But in my conversation with BASF's tech support, I got the impression that the problem I am having is not altogether uncommon. There are definite overspray issues in my installation, and so far they have all occurred in similar areas, namely the corners where the walls meet the roof. It seems to go like this. Per BASF's specs, the max rated thickness in one application pass of Comfort Foam is 2 inches. Consequently, the installer tries to always do 2 inches in one pass to save time, which means they've already eaten up their margin of error. This isn't so bad on a flat surface, like on an interior wall, but at a corner there's no way an installer will be able to make an absolutely perfect spray that conforms to the contour of the wall. You get a fillet, where it's rounded off and thicker than 2 inches at the very corner. It's also very hard to judge visually, and in the case of my house, where the wall meets the roof it's a shallow angle and there's not much clearance between the top of the wall and the roof. This means that foam on the bottom rises up to meet the foam on the top and gives even less space for heat to dissipate, which as I have been told is key to the foam not doing what the foam did in my install. Having dug out large chunks of the foam myself, the above description is exactly what seems to have happened. The surface of the corners looks fine, because the final pass was fine. But if you dig down even slightly, the foam is discolored, incredibly soft (it looks like it changed from a closed cell to an open cell), and stinks to high heaven. But you can't tell by looking at the top layer where all the problems are. The installer dug out maybe 15 square feet of foam, and I dug out maybe another six (out of 130 total), and the odor still persists, especially if the sun comes out and heats up the roof.

I do feel that the product, if you could install it correctly, would behave as advertised. But removing it in the event of an improper installation is a nightmare, and even finding the areas of bad foam is an incredible pain. You have to poke the foam full of holes to find the soft spots, which I am assuming negatively impacts the insulation properties of the foam. If you have lots of Romex running through the foam, as I do, it's even worse to remove as you simply can't power through it with any degree of force. Plus, how green is it when you create a bunch of landfill from all the bad foam that gets ripped out and thrown away?

I'm sure I sound bitter about this, and I am, but I've tried to be as factual and objective as possible in what I've relayed. I do think that the major downfall of this product is the potential for installer error, but I think that is a highly probably outcome after what I have seen and what I have been told by the manufacturer. And to make matters worse, the company who installed it was one pointed to me after I went to BASF's site and asked to be directed to a Comfort Foam installer in my area. I tried to do my homework, and it didn't seem to help. At least with some other insulation product, even if it didn't insulate and seal as well, had the installation gone poorly it wouldn't be so difficult to remove. I should have hedged my bets better. I found out after the fact that I could have reached my insulation goal using a polyiso foam board product, and if I could go back and time and change course I would have done exactly that. It would have taken infinitely longer to install, but given all the time I've lost due to the bad SPF install, I'd have either come out ahead or at least broken even. The best advice I could give on this is to echo the comments of others. In my opinion, don't install something in your home that involves chemical mixing on site. It should be complete in its chemical makeup when you bring it home. The only exception would be paints and glues, because even the foulest of glues get used pretty sparingly as compared to the total surface area of a home, and the issues with paint are much better understood. And even with paint, in the worst case you'd have to rip out all the drywall to get rid of it, and to be quite frank I'd rather re-drywall an entire room than have to chisel out all this foam.

Answered by B. Kolodziej
Posted Tue, 03/16/2010 - 14:15

39.
Helpful? 0

"how green is it when you create a bunch of landfill?"

I have said this a hundred times, but it bears repeating: there is nothing green about petrochemical foam plastics (or any or the 80,000 petrochemicals we've brought into the world). They are unnatural, toxic non-biodegradable compounds with dramatic and often unintended consequences.

These include: significant environmental impacts at all phases of the life cycle, significant embodied energy and embodied global warming, health hazards at every phase of production, application, use and disposal, non-biodegradable landfill mass or incineration toxins at the end of useful life, manifold site variables making proper chemical mixing and application a near impossibility, and degradation of function (insulation, air barrier, vapor barrier) if not perfectly installed.

Green means mimicking the materials and methods of the natural world: converting sunlight into usable heat and energy, bio-compatible and bio-degradable materials, non-toxic, renewable, synergistic and stunningly efficient.

Answered by Riversong
Posted Tue, 03/16/2010 - 18:09

40.
Helpful? -1

Hear, hear.

Answered by Lucas Durand - 7A
Posted Tue, 03/16/2010 - 22:23

41.
Helpful? 0

In response to Mr. Robert Riversong's answer to me in February. This is total bunk...talk about a foam representative or lawyer trying to skate out of a legal issue!!!! I have a letter from the Icynene company stating the home can be occupied within 24 hours after installation (NOT THE THREE DAYS YOU STATED), but that the foam cures "within minutes". My brother didn't install the foam himself but had it installed by a certified Icynene installer from their web site. My brother was very responsible is selecting this product according to these claims, but the fact remains that he cannot go back into a brand new home where the Icynene foam was sprayed in December. He had no problems working in the home daily for the entire six months before this crap was sprayed in. Don't to talk down to someone who HAS performed "due diligence" according to the company's guidelines and has never suffered from any type of chemical sensitivity before in his life. His resulting health problems are a direct result of the icynene product instalaltion and yet he cannot get any response from the installer or the company. I have talked at least 10 people I know out of using this product based on my brother's horrible experience.

Answered by Marlene
Posted Fri, 04/09/2010 - 17:28

42.
Helpful? 0

And oh by the way, the installer did come by two weeks ago and stated "I didn't expect it to smell this bad in here after this length of time." (over three months later). But he is still unwilling to do anything to correct the situation. Talk about crap....the installer blames the product and the company blames the installer. Just stay away from it! Period.

Answered by Marlene
Posted Fri, 04/09/2010 - 17:30

43.
Helpful? -2

Marlene,

Due diligence requires more than accepting a manufacturer's or installer's claims. It requires independent research to verify or disprove the claims of the salespeople.

As I've stated more times than anyone here cares to remember, there is nothing either "green" or healthy about petrochemical foams, or any of the 80,000 petrochemicals that never existed on earth before we created them.

Unfortunately, most of American society is brainwashed into believing in the "magic" of chemistry, as the advertisers and marketers have impressed on us for generations. Every product produced since the start of the petrochemical age is toxic, either to people or the environment or both.

Again, I'm sorry that your brother had to learn the lesson the hard way. Perhaps his story will help others learn before it's too late.

Answered by Riversong
Posted Fri, 04/09/2010 - 18:07

44.
Helpful? 0

Great discussion here about SPF. We are evaluating these and other insulations' toxicity (manufacture and user exposure) and renewable content in the Pharos Project. I recently posted a blog on this subject, which dissects some of the common ingredients. Please see: http://pharosproject.net/index/blog/mode/detail/record/52/spf-explosive

Answered by Jim Vallette
Posted Thu, 04/29/2010 - 16:24

45.
Helpful? 0

I was just about to have closed cell foam installed in my attic, when I am came on this discussion. I now I have changed me mind. I am very concerned about off-gassing and toxins. However, it is still not clear to me which products are safe for people and pets. Can anyone recommend specific insulation products (type and manufacturer) for a floor in an attic in a 90 year-old house in Washington DC.

Answered by Helene Jorgens
Posted Wed, 05/05/2010 - 09:10

46.
Helpful? 1

Cellulose (ground-up old newspapers plus borate).

Answered by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor
Posted Wed, 05/05/2010 - 09:19

47.
Helpful? 0

Flash and Batt or Flash and Cellulose
Best of both things Flash is 1/2" to 1" of SPF( flash to seal ) and then cellulose or glass batt for R's if you have space

Answered by Tom Eagleman
Posted Wed, 05/05/2010 - 20:01

48.
Helpful? 0

This thread has been so helpful; thank you. We had Bayseal Closed Cell polyurethane spray foam (by Bayer) put in the unvented eaves of our 1.5 story 1825 timber frame cape in February in Maine. This is our "attic" and is planned for lots of storage. Sheetrock (not mudded nor taped) was installed overtop except for one 2'x2' area (no idea why). The outgassing is still occurring. Because this is actually a new construction project (the timber frame was taken down, moved, and re-erected on a new foundation), we have been over there painting, etc. and luckily have not developed a chemical sensitivity - yet. The contractor met with the installer and a rep from Bayer and has indicated that they (not clear which one) have offered to mud, tape, and prime the sheetrock, or rip out the spray foam altogether. My husband and I are trying to figure out what to do. Thoughts are welcome and appreciated.

Also, just wanted to share that some of the websites that have been mentioned *may* actually be paid for by spray foam companies and related industries, so you have to be careful of biased advice. For example, in the product guide for our spray foam product, Bayer says, "More
resources are available at spraypolyurethane.com,
polyurethane.org, sprayfoam.org, baycareonline.com." Not sure what to believe!

Answered by Heather
Posted Mon, 06/07/2010 - 13:38

49.
Helpful? -2

Heather,

If you're noticing the chemical smell, then I would recommend removing the foam rather than trying to encapsulate it. It's always better to eliminate a problem than to attempt to contain it.

Answered by Riversong
Posted Mon, 06/07/2010 - 13:45

50.
Helpful? 1

Here is the simple truth of spray foam in an existing building: Mixing this material in the field can be inconsistent and as mentioned many times above, completely depends on the skill level of the installer (don't confuse the actual person who shows up at the property with the company who sells you the product and promotes themselves as experts). And if the installer is in a crawl space or under your house, how good do you think that application will be?

Also, spray foam encases everything in the different building cavities … walls, under the floor, between rafters, little small spaces you shoot it into because there is no other point of access. Here is just one problem with that ... if at a later date you wish to rewire your house or there is a short in your ssytem that you have to find, this work cannot be done without removing either the interior sheetrock or the exterior siding as new wiring cannot be snaked through the existing channels (these are now covered in spray foam). And even if you do pay the money to gain access to the spray foam, the electrcial cost will be excessive due to the extra work of the electrician because he has to carve out a space for the new wiring. Same goes for plumbing in your walls or under your floors. And if you want to remove this material in the future because it makes the occupant ill or because new research shows that it is like lead paint or the newest horror of Chinese drywall, this is almost impossible to remove. Yes, you can scoop out the majority of it as it cures into a spongy substance, but it cannot be completely removed without tenacious and labor intensive efforts. And then, there is almost always a residue left attached to every piece of wood framing it has come into contact with.

Do we not have enough petrochemical based products causing the experts to scratch their heads as they try to evaluate health and environmental risks, without volunteering to be the manufacture’s canary in the minefield? They are many other options out there and what most people are trying to achieve is a lower energy bill not a zero energy usage. Any minuet amount of energy savings that you lose by having a lower R-value in your building by using a safer product, can easily be addressed by humans interacting with a structure. By turning the thermostat down 5 degrees when you leave in the morning will re-gain any loses that are being used as scare tactics by the spray foam sales force. And this is just one of many options available to everyone.

For those who do want to do research into a product, here is a simple way to evaluate any issue when you are making these critical decisions for your house and your health … if it is a new man-made product, do you want to take a chance with it before it has been proven (remember, only about 30% of materials are regulated), and if you do, is the application reversible therefore allowing you to remove it if problems occur in the future.

Answered by Tracy Nelson
Posted Mon, 06/07/2010 - 14:13

Other Questions in Green products and materials

In Green building techniques | Asked by Kevin Hardy | Jul 26, 14
In Energy efficiency and durability | Asked by david chinn | Jul 27, 14
In General questions | Asked by Robert Shelton | Jul 25, 14
In Energy efficiency and durability | Asked by Noah Byler | Jul 23, 14
In GBA Pro help | Asked by mark godfrey | Jul 26, 14
Register for a free account and join the conversation


Get a free account and join the conversation!
Become a GBA PRO!