A picture of fiberglass insulation on the left, with a woman sick in bed on the right side, and the caption "Can insulation make you sick" written in the middle.

As a homeowner, the status of the insulating materials within your home may not be front of mind. But when the cooler seasons are looming over us, making sure the insulation in your home is adequately installed and not posing a possible health hazard is well worth exploring. Which begs the question: can insulation make you sick? 

Some types of insulation can potentially make you sick or cause health risks. Improper installation, water damage, chemicals, and interferences by other particulate matter are the leading causes behind such illnesses. However, insulation that is fixed in your home correctly is most often harmless. 

The following sections will outline, explain, and analyze the factors that can trigger insulation into becoming a potential health hazard. The different varieties of home insulation and how to prevent your insulation from becoming a risk to your health will also be discussed. You will also be able to read information on how insulation works and where you should install it in your home. 

How Insulation Can Make You Sick

The most significant factor in insulation is installation because improper installation can cause illnesses and other health risks. With so many chemicals and tiny particles involved, insulation that is not correctly inserted can have several hazards. The main risks include respiratory conditions, skin irritants, or an increased risk of cancer.  

Respiratory Conditions 

Different types of insulators are made out of tiny foreign particles that can irritate the throat or nose if inhaled, leading to a feeling of dryness and fits of coughing. Inhaling these materials over an extended time can cause inflammation of the sinuses and may lead to more serious respiratory issues, including trouble breathing or asthma attacks. 

Insulation also contains chemicals that are potentially harmful if not installed correctly. In a process known as “chemical off-gassing,” chemicals from the insulation can be dispersed through evaporation throughout the air and your home. These chemicals can be dangerous if inhaled over an extended period. Some insulators may also possess strong, sickening smells that over time can have adverse respiratory effects. 

Skin Irritants

Insulators such as fiberglass are known skin irritants. Touching this type of insulation can cause redness or itchiness upon contact. Fiberglass also contains a chemical known as formaldehyde, which can adversely irritate the skin, mouth, and eyes of those who may be reactive to it.

Other types of insulation that essentially contain paper can break down easily and release certain kinds of dust and debris that can inflame the skin or eyes if they are disturbed or moved. These types of insulators can commonly exacerbate or worsen already existing seasonal allergies. 

Increased Risk of Cancer

Certain types of insulation might contain chemicals that are harmful to inhale over a long period of time. Frequently, insulation contains flame-retardants to reduce the spread of potential fire.

These flame-resistant agents can become carcinogenic, as they break down over time and sometimes fail to bind with the material if installed improperly, which allows them to be released freely into the air. 

Mold and Mildew

The same tiny air pockets that hold heat in insulation can also hold moisture. Water and other moisture will not only render the insulation almost wholly ineffective, but it will also make the perfect conditions for mold and mildew to form. The moisture encourages the spread of mold spores, which then feed on the biodegradable materials in the insulation to grow and spread further. 

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), exposure to mold can cause symptoms such as wheezing and itchy nose or eyes, and long-term exposure can lead to severe conditions including fever and difficulty breathing. 

It’s common when you pull out old insulation, you’ll find mold and mildew in the walls. This happened during our second net-zero home renovation project. If moisture and water gets trapped, it’s bad news!

Other Risk Factors

Another notable risk that can lead to illness caused by insulation includes not wearing proper protective gear during the installation process. Certain chemicals or chemical by-products can be more harmful if inhaled before drying or binding to the material. 

Insulation can also become a cozy home for unwanted pests such as mice, voles, or birds. The spread of their dander and waste may cause adverse health effects if inhaled or ingested. 

Types of Insulation

Looking at all the different ways insulation can make us sick, you’re probably wondering if certain kinds of insulation lead to more potential hazards than others. The answer is yes. There are many different types of insulation, each with their own unique potential hazards. Let’s dive into the most common types of insulation and the risks that each may possess. 

  • Fiberglass: As mentioned before, fiberglass can be a dangerous irritant to the human body. The insulation itself is made from spun fiberglass that is woven together. These tiny particles can be easily shifted or disturbed, allowing them to be inhaled or lodged in the skin, nose, mouth, or eyes.
  • Cellulose: This type of insulation is made from recycled paper. This can lead to the build-up and spread of dust that can cause inflammation of allergies. 
  • Rigid foam: Rigid Foam insulation is renowned for its flame resistance, which is mainly beneficial but can also pose a health risk. The chemicals in the fire-retardant agents break down over time and can be carcinogenic, which can increase the risk of developing cancer. 
  • Spray foam: This insulation is applied by being sprayed as a liquid. Exposure to this material and its many chemicals and by-products before it has dried may cause lung damage, skin irritation, or asthma attacks. 
A picture of three types of insulation in squares: fiberglass, cellulose, and spray foam
Showing a few types of insulation commonly in homes.

Preventing Insulation Sickness

All in all, no matter the type of insulation you elect to insert within your home, preventing illnesses and potential health risks caused by insulation is relatively easy. In order to stay healthy and safe, keep the following in mind: 

  • Have a professional handle your insulation: When it comes to insulation, the installation process, equipment, and protective gear are complicated and vital to staying safe. Using a professional company with trusted individuals is the best way to ensure the job gets done right. “DIY-ing” insulation on your own is generally not the best idea.
  • Schedule yearly inspections: This might seem more frequent than necessary, but most contractors and HVAC experts recommend having your systems and insulation inspected yearly. An inspection can reveal weather damage, excessive moisture, or the presence of unwanted pests that otherwise would have been left unchecked. 
  • Handle any problems in a timely manner: If you notice any persistent odors, areas of moisture, or mistakes in installing your insulation, it is important to correct these issues quickly before long-term health effects may occur. 
  • Conduct your own research: While this article can answer most of your questions, it is equally as important to conduct research on your own to guarantee the correct insulation is fixed within your home. The environment your house is in and where you are installing the insulation are two key factors to research. 

The Importance of Insulation 

For those of us who are not professional contractors or experts in the field of home insulation, let’s look at a few of the basics behind it. You might be thinking, if insulation is so potentially dangerous, why is it included in almost every home? Why do I need insulation, anyways? What is the purpose?

According to the U.S Department of Energy (DOE), “Insulation in your home provides resistance to heat flow and lowers your heating and cooling costs. Properly insulating your home not only reduces heating and cooling costs but also improves comfort.” 

Essentially, insulation creates a blockade between the walls of your home and the outside air. 

Depending upon the season, insulation prevents heat from entering or escaping. In the winter, it prevents heat from seeping through the walls to the outside. In the summer, it prevents heat in the outside air from flowing to the inside of your home. Insulation acts as a barrier to stop the passage of warm air. 

A man in a hard hat and PPE safety vest installing rigid foam insulation boards in a wall inside a house.
Using rigid foam board is an excellent and efficient way to insulation your home, if they can fit neatly in between the studs and rafters.

Why Your Home Needs It

The main reason homes today need to be insulated is that insulation dramatically reduces the cost of heating and cooling and promotes energy efficiency. Instead of having to run your air conditioning or heater on high settings continually, insulation will maintain the temperature of your home and save you money. 

Energy Star says that the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that insulation saves the typical American homeowner 15% on heating and cooling costs. Further research and estimations have calculated that an average of 11% of total energy costs is saved by insulating homes.

Data found by the U.S Energy Information Administration shows that retail prices of electricity have increased by 2.8% in 2021 and predict it will increase by at least 1% in 2022. As the cost of electricity and electric bills continue to rise, it is becoming more important to save money on energy where you can. 

Insulating homes can also positively impact our environment and help to lessen our carbon footprint. Better maintaining the temperature of your home minimizes its usage of electricity, which lowers the use of natural gas, oil, propane, or coal.

This reduces the amount of non-renewable resources used to create electricity, which decreases carbon emissions that are harmful to our atmosphere and contribute to many issues such as global warming and air quality. 

Where Your Home Needs It

Now that you know why your home needs to be insulated, let’s look at where your home should have insulation. In order to achieve maximum efficiency, the Department of Energy (DOE) recommends the following: 

  • Attic spaces: Unfinished attic spaces should have insulation to seal airflow in finished parts of the house. Finished attics should have insulation between studs and exterior walls.
  • Exterior walls: All exterior walls, including those between garages or other extensions, above-ground foundation walls, or foundation walls in finished basements.
  • Floors above cold spaces: Including crawl spaces or garages.
  • Band joists: Insulation should be placed within the top of foundational walls that run around the house.
  • Replacement or storm windows: Should be caulked and sealed in addition to insulated

How It Works 

After reviewing the necessities for insulating your home, in order to be aware of and prevent health risks, it is crucial to learn some of the main properties and mechanics behind the material. 

The flow of air always follows the pattern of hot to cold. No matter the circumstance, heat will travel from warm to cool until finally there is no difference in temperature. This explains why in the winter, the heat from your house travels to the cold outside air, and why in the summer, heat from the outside air travels into your home. Heat travels from hot to cold using three different mechanisms: 

  • Conduction: Heat travels by direct contact between materials. An example of such is touching your hand on a stove.
  • Convection: Heat travels through the flow of a liquid or gas. This is how a space heater makes the air in a room warm.
  • Radiation: Heat travels through electromagnetic waves. For instance, heat from the sun travels in UV rays.

Regardless of the type of insulation or substances used, it provides the same function. In the most basic terms, insulation resists and slows the flow of heat by containing tiny air pockets within the material that traps hot air and prevents it from moving or traveling elsewhere. 

A material or substance’s ability to slow the movement of heat is graded by its thermal resistance, commonly referred to as its “R-value.” The larger the R-value, the greater the materials’ resistance to heat.

Different types of insulators have various R-values, which can vary depending upon a multitude of factors. Density, temperature, thickness, and levels of moisture can all impact an insulator’s ability to stop the flow of heat effectively.

Conclusion

While insulation may cause harmful health impacts, most of the risks to you and your family’s well being remain relatively minor, especially if remedied and attended to quickly. Insulation in your home that is correctly inserted in a dry environment and left undisturbed will not pose a risk to you or anyone else in your home.

Sources

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