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Building Science

California’s Mistake Puts Spray Foam Insulation on the Bad List

A state agency's lack of knowledge garners spray polyurethane foam one of the first three spots on the "Priority Products" list

Karl Palmer of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control gave a presentation on why spray polyurethane foam is one of the first three Priority Products listed in the state's Safer Consumer Products Program, a part of the Green Chemistry Initiative.
Image Credit: Energy Vanguard

Last summer I learned about the state of California’s efforts to create more healthful buildings and working conditions. In 2008, they passed the California Green Chemistry Initiative with the intent of reducing state residents’ exposure to toxic chemicals.

California leads the U.S. in new directions all the time, and green chemistry could be another. Unfortunately, though, they were slow out of the gate and their initial attempts to implement the law don’t instill confidence.

The Safer Consumer Products Program

I’ll distill this issue down as much as I can because it’s easy to get confused if you dive in and try to figure it all out. First, the Green Chemistry Initiative, also called the Green Chemistry Law, contains six recommendations. (Karl Palmer,1 an administrator at the California Department of Toxic Substances Control who’s pictured in the photo at right, specified the California Assembly bill numbers as AB 1879/SB 509.) 

The Safer Consumer Products Program stems from recommendation number 5: “Accelerate the quest for safer products.”

Here’s how it works.

Step 1

The state puts together a list of “candidate chemicals.” The Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) website says there are about 1,200 chemicals on the list.

Step 2

The DTSC identifies products that use those chemicals and singles out any that they believe should be scrutinized further. These are called Priority Products. In March 2014, after six years of trying to implement Green Chemistry Initiative recommendation #5, they finally announced the first three Priority Products:

The DTSC writes a Priority Product Profile for each one, giving the scientific reasoning behind its inclusion on the list.

Step 3

The “responsible entities” for a Priority Product must then do an Alternatives Analysis to see what they might be able to do to make their product safer.

Step 4

California then decides what regulations…

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6 Comments

  1. User avater
    Ken Levenson | | #1

    Installer habits
    Allison,
    You write;
    "Nearly all installers now wear appropriate personal protective equipment, including respirators with air pumped in from outdoors."
    But if an informal look at YouTube is any indication, quite a few installers do not use proper protection. In the very videos, where they are selling themselves as expert professionals to the public via You Tube, many are not wearing proper protection. Not encouraging.

    I have more comments - I'll try to circle back later on.

  2. User avater GBA Editor
    Allison A. Bailes III, PhD | | #2

    Response to Ken Levenson
    An informal search of Youtube also shows that a lot of skiers do crazy stupid jumps off of cliffs (search "ski cliff jump") and young males do crazy stuff high up on buildings (search "parkour") and teenagers are willing to inhale dangerous substances (search "cinnamon challenge").

    Besides those data not proving anything, your contention that "a great number of installers do not use proper protection," even if true, would not be enough to land spray foam on the list of California's Priority Products. That's an OSHA issue. Should California ban ladders because of the great hazard they present?

  3. User avater
    Paul Eldrenkamp | | #3

    foam is great ... when things go well
    There's no question in my mind that spray foam is a great product when everybody gets everything right. It also seems clear that CA really botched this particular attempt at evaluating the risks and hazards of foam.

    I am bothered by Allison's using the phrase "the anti-foam crowd," though. I expect that sort of rhetoric and lumping together in our political discourse, but not in discussions of technical issues at GBA.

    Where Allison sees "the anti-foam crowd," I see a spectrum of concerns about some real and some potential issues with the use of foam. Some of those concerns are probably legitimate, some are probably not.

    A large majority of our foam projects have gone well. A few have gone badly. On those that have gone badly, the manufacturer's rep has responded with stonewalling at best and lying at worst; no one representing the manufacturer has ever said "sorry" or ever admitted the possibility of a mistake of any kind even when a respected independent consultant raised red flags.

    The foam industry will not have my full support until I am confident that I have the foam industry's full support. In my experience, they are far too willing to let the contractors who spec their products hang out to dry if things go wrong. Spray foam is a product, but properly installing spray foam is a service. The spray foam industry needs to understand that, fundamentally, they're in a service business, and start to act accordingly.

  4. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    Response to Paul Eldrenkamp
    Paul,
    I agree with your comments.

    In an article published 4 years ago, I wrote, "Any experienced builder knows that building materials are occasionally defective. A builder who gets a bad window or a bad sink wants to be able to call up a manufacturer’s rep and have that rep show up at the job site and resolve the problem quickly. If this happens, the builder becomes a loyal customer. In fact, most builders’ choice of window brand is based not on the window quality but on the service provided by their local rep.

    "By this standard, many spray foam manufacturers are failing dismally. There are a few exceptions... However, many homeowners report that manufacturers have ignored their phone calls or tried to blame other substances (such as paint) for the odors in their homes. ...

    "My advice to spray-foam manufacturers is simple: it’s not acceptable to brush off customers with smelly foam. If these cases aren’t quickly resolved, the dead-fish smell is likely to taint the entire industry."

  5. User avater GBA Editor
    Allison A. Bailes III, PhD | | #5

    Response to Paul Eldrenkamp
    All good points, Paul. I've changed the language to remove the term "anti-foam crowd" because you're right: It doesn't help. I also see a "spectrum of concerns," as you do. We've been called in to consult on some of them, and I understand that there are a lot of viewpoints and experiences in relation to spray foam. I was referring mainly to those who see all or most uses of foam insulation as bad and sometimes use misleading arguments or data to support their point.

    You are exactly the kind of person whose voice needs to be heard by the industry. You've had mostly good experience with SPF but have had enough bad experience to make you wary. I'm interested in hearing more about your experiences and will contact you privately to learn more.

    Thanks for your comments, Paul!

  6. Bettina Hoar | | #6

    What about other concerns?
    Thank you for taking the time to synthesize the above - very informative. I agree with Martin, so much is in the hands of the service of installing spray foam (spec'ing the right foam for the project, getting the mix right, at the right temperature from truck to building, applying it correctly to a correctly prepped and accessible surface, with even and consistent application) I wonder, however, why the issue of brominated fire retardants in SPF are not included in the California concern? In addition, there are broader issues: people tend to see spray foam as a "magic bullet" of both air barrier and insulation, yet after personally witnessing a number of pre-drywall blower door tests with thermal imaging, I can assure you this is difficult at best, even by builders with the best of intentions and appliers with the greatest training and experience, given a variety of factors including the geometry of the building, difficult access to corners and headers where the size of the spray nozzle simply doesn't reach well, not to mention post-spray foam penetrations done without regard to the effect they may have if it is to act as the air barrier. Another concern I have is the removal and disposal of SPF that will come in future as these homes being spray foamed begin to be modified through renovations. In addition, the smoke risk and flash rate of fires in buildings with SPF (or rigid foam boards) pose a greater threat than in buildings with non-petroleum based insulation. Even if all goes well in buildings that don't catch fire, my final concern is inhalation of the unreacted product found in dust that could affect occupants - I would be grateful to know if anyone has found research that confirms/denies the assurance in your article that the danger (not just of di-isocyantes but of the entire formulation) is mitigated within 5 minutes. While I agree we shouldn't let hysteria or misinformation rule out the use of an effective product, we should still carefully consider its use. Further summaries of the type you've made above will help in having a rational and thoughtful discussion of the matter. Thank you.

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