Spray Foam Risks, Dangers, Odor, Smell: Is this Insulation Toxic?

sprayfoamSpray foam insulation is a booming industry. It’s a huge money-maker and where there is lots of money to be made, there is lots of brainwash going on—a huge marketing machine that’s bigger than one can comprehend.

Naturally you won’t find much online about spray foam insulation risks, disadvantages, and especially health risks associated with spray foam. In other words, the marketing machine is so strong, the truth has been wiped out off the internet. All you need to do is publish enough propaganda to push everything in Google to page 2. (Almost no one clicks through to page 2…) Even forums are controlled directly or indirectly by the industry: by the manufacturers themselves, by installers, and the best gimmick are organizations and publications set up for the sole purpose of promoting specific products, using inconspicuous names, such as the ‘science of building’ (you did notice I changed the name a bit, didn’t you :)), ‘fine home building’, etc.

So there are these guys who write articles, pretending to be an authority in something, such as ‘how to build great homes’, ‘how to properly insulate your cathedral ceiling’, etc. in an infomercial type setting. The marketing message is hidden over many steps. Marketers know you will ‘triangulate’ to assure yourself you are buying the ‘right thing’ for your house. By triangulate I mean to look for several independent info sources describing the same thing. That’s why it’s crucial for the industry to pull in academia, and seemingly independent ‘research’ organizations that focus on home building issues. In reality, lots of money is being exchanged under the table to ensure certain technologies are highlighted and recommended by the ‘expert’. Naturally spray foam is at the top of the list, since it’s involves huge profit margins for everyone involved. And that’s because people believe they will save a lot of money. Where does this belief come from? It’s shaped through lots and lots of marketing.

In internet and various in-print publications spray foam is glorified as the perfect thing to do when you renovate or build a new home. Basically the industry took a commodity, low-cost building material (fiberglass insulation) and replaced it with a better performing, very expensive, and potentially toxic to human health alternative under the ‘green building’ umbrella. Nothing about spray foam is green: you don’t save green (dollars) by buying it as it costs way more than all other insulation options, and its potential long-term savings are overstated. From a green ‘tree-hugger’ perspective, the last thing you would want is petroleum based products polluting the environment. But it all makes sense for the installer who promises you huge energy savings and quotes an unbelievable sum for the project, not telling you the truth about what you are really getting into. Perhaps if spray foam was a natural substance with zero off-gassing, no harmful chemicals, and recyclable, my perspective and opinion about it would be different; however, the industry doesn’t have a reason to make spray foam less toxic, since no one really knows about the health risks anyways. You won’t see it on TV, you won’t hear it on the radio for a good reason. It’s all paid. The industry makes sure no main-stream media will report anything negative. Well it’s very similar in most industries, isn’t it? When all major stations are corporate controlled, there isn’t much free press to begin with.

What is Spray Foam Insulation

Check out this article Chemicals in spray polyurethane foam: How can something so toxic be considered green? (http://www.treehugger.com/green-architecture/chemicals-spray-polyurethane-foam-how-can-something-so-toxic-be-considered-green.html) It describes the major chemical components of spray foam. The typical paint type odor of spray foam comes from isocyanates, which are very reactive and known to cause cancer and other health problems.

Spray foam is typically mixed on site (!) Unlike your IKEA mattress or pink XPS board (extruded polystyrene) that come from well-controlled factory environments, spray foam installers mix the chemicals on site at the tip of their spray foam gun when the chemicals are sprayed out and hit the wall or ceiling. That’s why they have to wear full body protection, obviously, as this type of gas is extremely toxic.

Is Spray Foam Toxic?

But, so we’re told, “the off-gassing is finished after the first 24 hours and it’s safe to enter your home”.

Just like IKEA tells you to vent the mattress for 3-4 days for it to “regain its shape”, which is non-sense, because the rolled up mattress instantly goes back to its shape. It’s the off-gassing of harmful chemicals that is the problem. By the way XPS boards also off-gas for some time. Why is there off-gassing?

When the chemicals that are to make up the foam are mixed together in a factory, a well-controlled environment, some in-balances between two pairs of chemicals (say you have too much A or too much B) leave reactive chemicals inside the material. In other words, A and B are to fully connect, but some A has escaped and now there is too much B, or vice versa, and now B gets trapped inside the foam. Isocyanates can become trapped in the foam and then slowly react with moisture in the air or other chemicals in the foam. Slowly these substances are given off to the surrounding air….not just for 24 hours; rather, many, many years.

What Makes Things Worse, What Can Go Wrong?

Because it is impossible to mix chemicals on-site perfectly and it’s impossible to control the environment, the in-balance is almost certain to happen. In other words, your spray foam will stink, perhaps not enough for you to smell it; that depends on the person. But the off-gassing is likely to go on indefinitely at varying levels.

The chemicals are supposed to be kept in a certain temperature and pressure range. The surrounding air at the project site needs to be in a certain temperature range and humidity range. Too much or too little of one or the other will cause different chemical reactions. Also the wood that the spray foam is sprayed on needs to be dry and warm within certain ranges. The house itself needs to be ventilated well during the process and for 24 hours afterwards. So as you can see, we haven’t even touched on the complexity of this chemical subject but simply listing a couple dependencies illustrates that things aren’t as simple as they are presented by the industry and spray foam installers.

Then during application, spray foam might not stick well for many reasons. Or it’s applied too thick. Or it’s applied in layers and one layer doesn’t stick to the next well. Or one layer isn’t allowed to cool off and the second is applied too early, which again traps chemicals inside the foam. Lots and lots of things can go wrong and barely anyone will tell you much about it because there is simply too much money in the game, so don’t expect honesty from this industry.

The industry prefers to blame the installer for everything. Just like if you buy crappy windows that leak from day one, they will blame your installer, too. If your car didn’t last beyond 100,000 miles, obviously it’s your fault; it’s your driving style, etc. Excuses are plenty, and somehow it’s never the manufacturer’s fault.

Why I Don’t Recommend Spray Foam

A friend of mine once said, ‘think of the most bizarre conspiracy theory of how X might be exploiting people. It’s likely they are already doing it and much worse than that, since they had much more time and resources to think about ways to cover it up, too’. When you raise children, you mind has to be in negativity mode. You don’t think ‘all is well’, you think of the worst scenario at all times. They will stick their finger in the electric receptacle, swallow the coin on the floor, put the lead paint in their mouth, swallow the toy, etc. A little bit of this catastrophic thinking will go a long way when you renovate or build a new home.

Imagine the whole house stinks like a paint factory. Imagine you and your kids getting headaches all the time. Imagine your kids running downstairs in the middle of the night, feeling sick with a migraine, coughing, telling you it stinks up there and they can’t sleep.

Imagine people coming to your house and noticing the intensive, sweet paint kind of smell.

Now you are starting to think…crap! What do we do next?

Pull down the drywall, which costs tens of thousands to install. Start scraping between each stud or roof joist. Bag everything. Sand the wood down to get the smallest pieces. Imagine how much labor this is going to be. Perhaps 100 to 300 man-days for a house or more. Imagine the drywall needs to be hung again, how much will this cost you?

Removal is possible with open cell foam, which is soft, but closed cell foam is really hard and difficult to remove or scrape. It’s hard like a potato, good luck trying to remove it.

While open cell foam smells like paint, closed cell foam has a rotten fish smell to it.

But either way, the odors are absorbed by the surrounding materials, which are studs, roof joists, sheathing, panels, etc. Perhaps you can paint them to minimize odors, perhaps you may have to remove the entire frame of your house.

Worst Case Scenario

Perhaps you may have to tear down your entire house because there is no way to remove the chemicals.

Look at this video of a real family (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPxg9IlYnWg titled “Demilec Sealection 500 Open Cell Spray Foam nightmare odor”) suffering from a spray foam installation that went wrong. They had to tear down half their house!

These aren’t exceptions. What’s exceptional about that story is that it appeared on TV news! What’s going on out there is that many people are sickened by spray foam in their own house and don’t know it yet because they never thought it’s the spray foam causing it. Perhaps they don’t even know their property has spray foam behind the drywall. And when you contact manufacturers and installers about spray foam odors and dangers, what do you get? A wall of denial!

Either they don’t smell anything or they tell you ‘all materials give off an odor’ which is “harmless”.

Good luck fighting a multi-billion dollar industry on your own!

So even if the chance of the worst case (house teardown) happening to you is 1:10,000, is it worth taking the risk and losing hundreds of thousands of dollars AND putting your health and that of your family at risk?

And, if perhaps the risk of being sickened slowly over a decade is 1:100, would you want to put a dollar amount on it? Would you want to risk various health problems in the long-term, including the potential for cancer, just to save a few dollars on your heating and cooling bill?

If you ask me, the risks outweigh all potential benefits. And let’s not forget, spray foam is not cheap to begin with either.

Other Technologies I Work With

I mainly work on Windows Server and Hyper-V backup. Much of my time is devoted leading a small team of developers, which focuses on backup software related technologies.