A picture of fiberglass, cellulose, and spray foam insulation in boxes, with a toxic skull symbol overtop all of them in the middle.

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.

Common Types of Insulation and Their Health Risks

Here’s a detailed overview of popular insulation materials and the risks they pose:

Fiberglass

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.

Fiberglass insulation being installed in the underside of a home attic ceiling, showing a beige fiberglass batt

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.

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:

Use Products With Low or No Formaldehyde

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!

Install the Fiberglass Insulation Properly

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!

Use a HEPA Air Cleaner

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.

A picture of a white table air purifier on a wood table, with a plant in the picture to the left.

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

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

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.

Work composed of cellulose insulation in the floor, floor heating insulation , warm house, eco-friendly insulation, insulation paper, a builder at work

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! 

Polyurethane Spray Foam Insulation

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.

Rigid Foam With Flame Retardants

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. 

A man in full protective gear is sitting on the attic floor while he sprays spray foam insulation on the underside of the attic ceiling.

These chemicals are linked to health problems such as:

  • Disorientation
  • 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

So, Should You Use Insulation?

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.

Why Hire a Professional To Install Your Insulation

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are two of the most frequently asked questions about insulation:

What Is the Healthiest 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.

Can You Touch Insulation With Bare Hands?

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Sources

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