We all know that a well-insulated home is more energy-efficient and can save you money. But is there a hidden cost you aren’t factoring into your insulation decision? What cost is that, you ask? The cost to your health.
We’ve compiled an FAQ of the health problems associated with insulation, including respiratory problems, skin irritation, and chronic health problems, to answer all your health-related questions. We will also explain how different factors such as the type of insulation and its age can affect your health.
So, if you are concerned about insulation and your health, keep reading. We’ll answer all your questions. (For more information about how insulation could affect your pets, click here.)
Table of Contents
- Respiratory Problems
- Skin Irritation
- Chronic Health Problems
- Final Thoughts
Respiratory issues are one of the first health problems that come to mind when I think about insulation. I mean, that’s why they always recommend you wear a mask when installing insulation, right? So let’s examine more closely why that mask is so crucial when working with insulation.
Is Breathing in Insulation Bad For You?
The short answer is yes, breathing insulation is bad for you. Just about all types of insulation can cause respiratory irritation when inhaled. However, different types of insulation cause irritation in different ways.
For example, mineral-based insulations, like fiberglass or rock wool, contain many small fibers that can actually penetrate into your lungs. When that happens, most fibers will dissolve within ten days, leaving no permanent damage. Nonetheless, in the short term, you may experience coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.
On the other hand, spray foam insulation contains many harmful petrochemicals that are sprayed in your home during the installation process. This is why workers installing spray foam insulation are required to wear a respiratory apparatus. These chemicals continue to off-gas for 24 hours after installation. Breathing in these chemicals can cause lung sensitivity leading to further problems, including asthma or bronchitis.
It is always best to use protection when working with insulation to avoid respiratory problems.
Long-term exposure to insulation can lead to chronic respiratory problems. This most commonly occurs to insulation installers or workers in factories that manufacture insulation rather than to homeowners.
However, if your insulation is improperly installed, you may be at risk. There is the potential for spray foam insulation to continue to off-gas, causing health problems.
The most common long-term health problems that come from inhaling too much insulation are asthma and bronchitis.
Fiberglass insulation looks so pink and soft and fluffy that it makes you want to reach out and pet it. But before you give in to that inclination, take a deep breath and think about it. Fiberglass insulation really is itchy and prickly. It’s the last thing you want to be touching.
But no matter our intentions, sometimes we accidentally expose our skin or other sensitive areas, like our eyes, to those pesky fibers. Let’s find out why they irritate us so much and what to do if we come in contact with them.
Fiberglass insulation is made by heating glass to very high temperatures and then spinning the molten glass into very thin fibers. It’s a lot like the process of spinning sugar into cotton candy. But the end result is very different. Those glass fibers are sharp and pokey. That means when you brush against them, they can penetrate your skin. Ouch!
If fiberglass penetrates your skin, it can cause a rash called fiberglass dermatitis. Usually, it looks like small blisters with dry, flaky skin. It’s often accompanied by redness and itching. The shorter and thicker the fibers, the worse the rash will be.
But your skin isn’t the only part of your body that fiberglass irritates. Your eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs will all become inflamed if they come in contact with these prickly fibers.
Since fiberglass is so irritating, it is important to stay properly covered if you are working with it. Long sleeves, pants, an N-95 mask, and gloves are a must. And don’t forget to wear safety goggles to protect your eyes. When you finish, remove your clothes and throw them in the wash. You don’t want to touch any fibers that may still be hanging on there.
However, sometimes no matter how safe you are, a stray fiber or two gets in contact with your body. Let’s talk about what to do then.
When those stray fibers sneak up your sleeves, or under your collar, the itching can be intense. But don’t worry, there’s a solution to help get the itching under control.
First, make sure you wash the affected area with running water. If you can, take a shower. That will help remove any lingering fibers that might be clinging to your hair.
Once you are clean, you want to pat yourself down gently. Don’t rub! If you have fibers that are stuck in you, you don’t want to push them in further.
Now that you are clean and dry, grab some tape. You want to carefully apply the tape to the parts of your body that came in contact with the fiberglass. As you slowly raise the tape from your skin, it should help remove any fibers that lodged there. It may not remove all the fibers, especially the small ones, if they are embedded deeply in your skin. But it should be effective at getting the bigger fibers.
Removing the fibers should help alleviate your itching. But it may take a little while for the itching to go away completely. You can use emollient creams to soothe the area while you wait for the rash to clear up completely. If you find the itchiness is more than you can handle, you might want to visit your doctor, who can prescribe a corticosteroid cream.
If you think fiberglass stuck in your skin is bad, getting it in your eye is even worse. It is very important that you are careful to remove the fibers so they don’t scratch your cornea.
If you get fiberglass in your eyes, the first thing you should do is leave the area with insulation. Then you want to remove your clothes to make sure there are no stray fibers that can continue to irritate you.
Now, you will need an assistant. They will want to examine your eye to see whether you have large or small fibers there. Before they help you, they should thoroughly wash their hands with soap and water. To examine your eye, they will lift your eyelid. If there appears to be a large amount of fiberglass in your eye, you should see a medical professional. However, if it is only a small amount, you can try to flush it out.
Using clean hands, have your assistant gently place a finger above your eyelashes to peel back your lid. Then they should pour a thin stream of clean water or eyewash solution to flush the fibers. Make sure they completely flush the area, including the sides of your eye.
Once they have flushed the area, they should examine your eye again to ensure all the fibers are gone. If there are still fibers there, repeat the process until they are gone. If for any reason you aren’t able to remove all the fibers from your eye, you will want to go see a medical professional.
And under no circumstances should you rub your eye or, worse yet, try and remove fibers with something sharp like tweezers. These could result in you scratching your cornea, which could lead to permanent eye damage. On the other hand, if you are able to flush all the fibers with water, then you shouldn’t have any long-term problems.
But can insulation cause other chronic problems? Let’s see.
Insulation can cause certain chronic health problems. It can be home to allergens like mold. Beyond that, insulation is made with many chemicals that have been shown to cause long-term health problems. So let’s look more closely at these health concerns.
Yes, it is possible to be allergic to insulation. If you are experiencing allergy symptoms, like sneezing, coughing, or skin irritation, your insulation could be to blame.
The most common type of allergy you will experience around insulation is skin allergies, as we discussed above. As we mentioned, when fiberglass insulation fibers come in contact with your skin, they can cause redness and itching.
But that’s not the only allergic reaction insulation can cause. The folks at the Asthma and Allergy friendly certification program say that your insulation may trap dust, mildew, or mold, all of which are allergenic. This can lead to sneezing and coughing. Insulation may also contain certain chemical binders that you can be allergic to.
So if you can’t figure out what is causing your allergy symptoms, maybe your insulation is to blame. (This article has our top tips for keeping your insulation mold-free.)
Yes, you can get sick from being around insulation, especially older or improperly installed insulation. Insulation contains many chemicals that act as fire retardants and binders. Exposure to these chemicals can cause various types of illnesses depending on the situation.
One example of this is formaldehyde. Fiberglass insulation used to contain formaldehyde as a binder. However, improperly installed insulation was off-gassing and causing respiratory problems leading to a ban of formaldehyde used in insulation. But older homes may still have older insulation that can cause illness.
Formaldehyde isn’t the only chemical that can make you sick. Spray foam insulation uses chemical catalysts that give off a strong smell. While the smell should dissipate rapidly, it can linger, causing some people to feel ill.
According to the Connecticut Department of Public Health, the fire retardants added to rigid and flexible foam insulation can also be problematic. The chemical retardants don’t always fully bind to the insulation and can continue to off-gas over the product’s life. These chemicals have been linked to abnormal thyroid function and disruption of nervous system development. They are also potentially carcinogenic.
While there are health risks associated with insulation, for the most part, they are not dire. While exposure to insulation can cause allergies and respiratory problems, generally, we are not exposed to insulation much in our homes. The people most at risk for insulation-related health problems are those who are in daily contact with insulation, like manufacturers and installers.
Older and improperly installed insulation does come with a higher risk of health-related problems. If you are concerned about your insulation, you might want to consult with a professional installer. But before you decide to install new insulation in your home, you might want to learn more about the healthiest insulation for your home.