When builders talk about spray-foam insulation, we assume they’re referring to a two-part polyurethane compound. But not always, as a recent Q&A demonstrates.
Amanda Cordano launched an interesting but inconclusive conversation when she asked for advice on “Tripolymer product,” which had been told was a green product with no health risks.
Cordano found nothing to contradict that in her queries on the web, but she points out that all the sites she found were sponsored by foam companies. “Do you have any information on the potential downside of this foam?” she asks.
Which ‘tripolymer’ is it?
The first step might be to identify exactly what Cordano is asking about. “Tripolymer” is a product of C.P. Chemical Co. of White Plains, NY, marketed as Tripolymer 105. The company says it is composed of “modified phenolic based methylene bound copolymers” that were first developed by C.P. Chemical in 1966 as a fire resistant thermal and acoustic insulation.
According to C.P. Chemical, the foam won’t melt, and won’t support combustion. Its combustion byproducts are “significantly less toxic” than those of white pine.
Like polyurethane insulation, Tripolymer is a two-part compound. Unlike polyurethane foams, Tripolymer 105 does not expand as it’s applied. It solidifies within 30 seconds and has a density of between 0.8 lb. and 1.3 lb. per cubic foot. Cured Tripolymer has a perm rating of 15.5 to 16.9 per inch and R-5.1 per inch. The company says it shows no thermal degradation over time.
Here’s where the confusion sets in.
Cassie responds that tripolymer is urea-formaldehyde insulation. “It is plastic. Will not burn, but it will melt and the fumes will kill you. Recently marketed in Canada under the name Retro foam. Once the Canadian government found out, the company was shut down and is now in a 500 million dollar lawsuit. Marketed around the US by various names the producer is CP Chemical out of White Plains New York.”
Cassie is half right. There is indeed a product called RetroFoam , sold by Polymaster in Knoxville, TN.
And it is a urea-formaldehyde insulation that is identified on the company’s Web site as a “tri-polymer resin.”
Banned in Canada
Health Canada in February 2009 issued an advisory warning consumers that RetroFoam of Canada “imported and illegally sold” a product that had been banned there since 1980 under the country’s Hazardous Products Act.
“Health Canada issued a ‘cease and desist’ letter to RetroFoam of Canada Incorporated, the Canadian importer of the insulation, to stop all importation and sale of RetroFoam in Canada,” the advisory said. “Health Canada also instructed Enerliv, the Canadian distributor of RetroFoam, to stop all sale, advertisement and further installations of the product and to call back any unused product.”
The problem is off-gassing formaldehyde, a chemical that can cause a variety of health problems and is listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as a possible carcinogen in humans.
Urea-formaldehyde is found in some pressed wood products, such as particleboard, hardwood plywood paneling and medium density fiberboard.
Urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) installed during the 1970s resulted in “relatively high indoor concentrations of formaldehyde,” the EPA says. “Few homes are now being insulated with this product. Studies show that formaldehyde emissions from UFFI decline with time; therefore, homes in which UFFI was installed many years ago are unlikely to have high levels of formaldehyde now.”
True enough, Polymaster says, RetroFoam is banned in Canada, as well as in California, Massachusetts and Vermont.
But, the company adds, the insulation has been reformulated since its original introduction and now meets federal emission standards. Some regulatory agencies just haven’t caught up.
No connection, says C.P. Chemical
Fair or not, urea-formaldehyde foam insulation has a bad reputation and still makes potential home buyers nervous. RetroFoam’s use of the word “tri-polymer” may be a marketing detour around the problem. Click on “About” at the company’s Web site and you’ll look in vain for any mention of its urea-formaldehyde formulation
But whatever similarities in Web-site jargon, there is no connection between RetroFoam and C.P. Chemical, maker of Tripolymer 105.
None, C.P. says. Nor is Tripolymer 105 a urea-formaldehyde product.
In the end, we have two different products, both of which differ from polyurethane foams, king of the high-performance insulation market.
We asked Alex Wilson, founder of BuildingGreen and publisher of the GreenSpec Directory for his take on the question:
First, Wilson says, it’s “remarkably difficult” to get detailed, reliable information from foam manufacturers. Urea-formaldehyde was a real problem back in the 1970s, enough so that the Canadian government launched a program to remove it from houses, Wilson says. As a result, some manufacturers shifted to a phenol-formaldehyde formulation that proved better at chemically binding formaldehyde and lowering emissions.
The same can be said of certain wood products: products made with phenol-formaldehyde resin off-gas less than urea-formaldehyde products.
Polyurethane foams may be the better choice
Wilson says his “expectation” would be that polyurethane foams are, on the whole, healthier choices. After they have cured, VOC emissions are extremely low and the foam should pose no problems to all but those who have chemical sensitivities. In any event, they don’t off-gas formaldehyde. He’s “not as confident” of either phenol- or urea-formaldehyde products.
Bottom Line: Third-party testing needed
In the end, he adds, the discussion points to the benefits of a third-party testing program that does not currently exist. That would make it easier for consumers like Cordano to get basic health and safety information about products they’re tempted to put into their homes.