When it comes to building or making a home comfortable, one of the first things that often come into mind is insulation. However, it’s always crucial to first check if the available insulators are safe to use.
Most insulation is generally toxic and dangerous, especially when you’re exposed to it for a long time. Fortunately, insulation is installed in ways that minimize exposure to these risks. However, improper insulation can cause irritation, pain, or severe long-term effects.
The rest of this article provides a detailed rundown of some of the most common insulation types, along with some information on their toxins and health effects associated with them. Keep reading for more insights and what you need to know about getting a HERS rating for your home.
Table of Contents
- Common Types of Insulation and Their Health Risks
- So, Should You Use Insulation?
- Why Hire a Professional To Install Your Insulation
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Final Thoughts
Here’s a detailed overview of popular insulation materials and the risks they pose:
Fiberglass is one of the most commonly used types of insulation in homes across America. It’s lightweight, easy to install, and relatively inexpensive compared to other forms of insulation like cellulose and spray foam.
Chances are you’ve already installed fiberglass insulation in your home or have had someone else do it for you at some point.
But what are the health risks of using fiberglass insulation?
It’s crucial to consider a critical agent used in binding this insulator: formaldehyde.
Formaldehyde is recognized as a human carcinogen, meaning it’s known to cause cancer in humans. Therefore, you should be aware of formaldehyde exposure risks when installing fiberglass insulation in your home. Additionally, fiberglass is quite harsh on the skin.
We also wrote up another article tackling whether certain insulation types can be carcinogenic. You can check that out here.
Generally, exposure to its tiny glass particles causes the following symptoms:
- Skin and eye irritation
- Stomach discomfort
- Sore nose or throat
That being said, there are several ways to protect yourself and your family from breathing in too much of this noxious gas:
Some manufacturers now make fiberglass insulation without toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, so you can look for these types if you’re concerned about toxicity.
You’ll need to read the labels carefully, though, because some manufacturers will use terms such as “low emission” or “inert,” which might not actually mean they’ve eliminated all toxins. But it’s still better than using conventional fiberglass!
Make sure you follow all manufacturer recommendations when installing fiberglass insulation, including having the right products and tools on hand to do so.
This includes having proper ventilation in place during installation (follow product instructions) and wearing a respirator when handling fiberglass or other insulative materials with high levels of formaldehyde in them. Make sure you keep these safety precautions in mind for future installations, too!
There are many types of air filtration systems to help improve indoor air quality. These filters eliminate chemicals like formaldehyde from your home’s environment.
I recommend this LEVOIT Air Purifier from Amazon.com. It cleans the air within 12 minutes, eliminating smoke, dust, smoke, and toxic volatile organic compounds, making it ideal for mitigating any harmful elements in the air.
HEPA (high-efficiency particulate absorption) filters have a 99.7% efficiency rating. They can remove the most harmful particles from the air. This is especially important if you’re using fiberglass insulation with high levels of formaldehyde in it since some particles may still escape from the material and make their way into your home’s environment.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that has been used in a variety of construction projects for its fire-resistant properties. It was once thought to be beneficial and safe — after all, it’s just a rock!
However, we now know that asbestos can cause devastating health problems when humans are exposed to it at high levels over long periods. Asbestos inhalation has been linked to lung cancer, mesothelioma (a fatal type of cancer affecting the lungs), and asbestosis (chronic lung disease).
Asbestos is typically found in the following forms:
- Asbestos cement sheeting. This was commonly used to cover basement walls back in the day. It has been banned in many places since it’s highly toxic, but there are likely many homes with this substance present.
- Vermiculite insulation. Vermiculite mining is now a strictly controlled process because exposure to vermiculite containing asbestos can be dangerous if inhaled over a long period. However, some commercial-grade vermiculite products are still being made today, so it’s important to read labels carefully before using them!
- Spray foam insulation. Certain types of spray foam insulation that contain asbestos are banned in many states. Therefore, it’s important to read the labels and ensure you have bought a safe product before using it in your home.
That being said, stay alert for signs of asbestos exposure. Asbestos-related health hazards can take years or even decades to develop, so if you’ve been on worksites where this material was installed or handled, be aware that there may be some long-term effects as well.
If you’ve been exposed to asbestos and are experiencing symptoms such as chest pain, coughing up blood, loss of appetite, weight loss, or fatigue, schedule an appointment with a doctor immediately.
Tip: If the diagnosis is mesothelioma, discuss your legal options with a personal injury lawyer as well, since you may have a case.
If you discover that asbestos is present in your basement, either through testing or visual inspection, immediately place all of the materials into sealed containers and contact a professional to come and remove it. Do not remove it yourself.
Cellulose insulation (fiberglass insulation made from recycled newspaper) used to be very popular for many years due to its sustainable source and cost-effectiveness (compared to newer alternatives).
Most manufacturers initially treated many older brands of recycled paper fiber with boric acid because it was thought to be a fire retardant.
However, boric acid gives off irritating, toxic fumes in a fire. When inhaled – the fumes irritate mucous membranes such as the eyes, nose, and throat, cause headaches, nausea, diarrhea, skin rash, and abdominal pain.
Nonetheless, there are brands of cellulose insulation that use 100% recycled paper products and don’t use any chemicals during the manufacturing process. These are considered to be safe for indoor air quality.
North Star Fiber Cellulose Insulation is one good example of insulation made of 100% recycled paper products. This insulation is better than fiberglass insulation as it is not only eco-friendly but also more cost-friendly.
However, even these products can release dust particles into the air when certain steps aren’t followed during installation. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully.
Tip: If you work with this product in your home, you should wear a dust mask or respirator. Don’t install it yourself if you have respiratory problems such as asthma!
Non-toxic spray foam insulation is a popular alternative to cellulose insulation for its energy efficiency and sound deadening qualities.
Over the last years, it has been gaining popularity because of benefits such as higher R-values (resistance to thermal transfer), greater air sealing capabilities, and higher fire resistance.
At one time, spray foam insulation was known for being toxic because of its ingredients. These ingredients included glycol ethers (a group of compounds considered a leading cause of worker deaths), ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, and harmful propellants such as HFCs.
Today, manufacturers have found safe alternatives to these previously used chemicals.
To make spray foam less flammable, some manufacturers add either a flame retardant or an inhibitor. The most common flame retardants used in spray foam are halogenated hydrocarbons, which release toxic chemicals when burned.
These chemicals are linked to health problems such as:
- Headaches (including migraines)
- Nausea and vomiting (symptoms of acute exposure)
- Loss of coordination (long term exposure can cause neurological damage)
- Irritation of the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes
You should insulate your home. Even though most insulation is made of dangerous chemicals that can cause serious reactions if you get exposed to them, you can always use alternative insulation materials like sheep wool or old jeans.
Besides, you can reduce some of the risks that come with manufactured insulation by hiring a professional.
If you’re planning on installing insulation yourself, even the best methods can be dangerous and unsafe. For example, proper installation of spray foam insulation requires the use of special equipment. An incorrect installation can release toxic fumes or cause indoor air pollution due to the chemicals used in manufacturing.
A good rule to follow is: if it looks like a job for professionals, it probably is.
Here are two of the most frequently asked questions about insulation:
Sheep’s wool is the healthiest insulation. It’s a natural product that provides buoyancy. Besides, it’s a renewable resource, non-toxic, and suitable for even the most sensitive people.
The best type of insulation is one that has been tested to ensure it doesn’t contain harmful chemicals or radiation.
You should not touch the insulation with bare hands. This is because of the potential for exposure to harmful chemicals and dust particles. These chemicals can cause pain and discomfort. For example, you may feel a stinging sensation if you touch fiberglass with bare hands.
Insulation is a necessity, but it can also be toxic. Though most insulation is safe to use for short periods, prolonged exposure may lead to irritation and pain in some cases. These symptoms are often exacerbated if the precautions necessary to maintain one’s safety while installing or removing insulation from their home aren’t followed closely.
To avoid these dangers and ensure that your family stays healthy during this process, take all proper steps when working with insulating materials like fiberglass or rigid foam with flame retardants.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: What Is a HEPA Filter?
- American Cancer Society: Formaldehyde
- International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC): Formaldehyde
- American Cancer Society: What Causes Malignant Mesothelioma?
- Mayo Clinic: Asbestosis
- Minnesota Department of Health: Asbestos – Vermiculite
- ACEEE: CFCs in Foam Insulation: The Recovery Experience
- National Toxicology Program: TOX-74: Cellulose Insulation
- National Library of Medicine: Halogenated Flame Retardants: Do the Fire Safety Benefits Justify the Risks?
- Youtube: What is a HERS rating?
- Northstarfiber: Eco-Friendly Cellulose Insulation