UFFI: A stigma based on fact or fiction?
Like disco and aluminum. wiring, the 1970s have left us some unfortunate legacies. Count urea formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) as one of them. While the impact is lessening each year, there is still residual stigma attached to a house insulated with UFFI (commonly pronounced “you-fee”).
UFFI was commonly used in existing houses by injection into uninsulated and difficult to access areas. It most often has a pale yellow colour, but pale blue has also been reported. It is soft and powdery, and crumbles easily to the touch. It has a reasonably good R-value (thermal resistance). Formaldehyde gas was released during the on-site mixing and curing. Formaldehyde is colour - less, but has a very strong odour, which can be detected at concentrations above one part per million. It is this formaldehyde off -gassing that became the controversial issue.
Formaldehyde is both a naturally occurring chemical, and an industrial chemical. It is found in dry-cleaning chemicals, paper products, no- iron fabrics, diapers, pillow-cases, the glue in particleboard and plywood, cosmetics, paints, cigarette smoke, and the exhaust from automobiles, gas appliances, fireplaces and wood stoves. It occurs naturally in forests and is a necessary metabolite in our body cells. Ambient formaldehyde levels in houses are typically .03 to .04 parts per million. By comparison, typical levels in the smoking section of a cafeteria is 0.16 ppm. Houses with new carpeting can also reach these levels. The insulation was used in the 1970s, most extensively from 1975 to 1978, during the period of the Canadian Home Insulation Program. Government grants were offered to I upgrade home insulation levels, which itself was prompted by the energy crisis. The insulation was banned in Canada in December 1980, It is estimated that more than 100,000 homes in Canada were insulated with UFFI.
The insulation was also used extensively in the United States during the 1970s, and has been used in Europe during the last 30 years. UFFI is still used in Europe, where it was never banned and is considered one of the better “retrofit” insulations.
In the United States, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the sale of UFFI in 1982, and shortly thereafter a law prohibiting the sale of urea formaldehyde was enacted.
In April 1983, the U.S. Court of Appeal struck down the law because there was no substantial evidence clearly linking UFFI to health complaints. UFFI is not widely used in the USA now. UFFI was not a do-it-yourself product. The foam was machine mixed on-site, and injected into wall cavities where it expanded to fill the cavity. Like many new and fast growing industries (particularly those supported by government grants, workman-ship and quality control were often less than perfect. Despite being approved in Canada only for use in exterior wood-frame wall cavities UFFI was most commonly injected into masonry wall cavities.
One of the first problem cases involving formaldehyde was in the United States. This involved an extremely airtight and poorly ventilated mobile home, apparently with a poorly mixed, half-formed UFFI. This started to raise government suspicions about the insulation.
Then, a laboratory study was released that produced nasal cancers in rats that were exposed to high levels of formaldehyde. Following some news releases and cautioning
by authorities, a number of home- owners began to report problems that included respiratory difficulties, eye irritations, running noses, nosebleeds, headaches and fatigue. Very quickly fear and suspicion led to the conclusion that a problem must exist. Urea formaldehyde foam insulation was banned as a precautionary measure. Research was
initiated to evaluate the problem, and to determine what should be done. No one knew exactly how many homes had UFFI, and it was often difficult to find out whether a home had UFFI. As inspectors, we sometimes see UFFI when we look in the attic, as it has oozed up from the wall cavity. For the nonprofessional, it is easy to be fooled by new spray foam products, which look a lot like UFFI.
The problem was further complicated by the fact that the foam was often used somewhat inappropriately in attics, in cavities where freeze-up of pipes had occurred and eyen as soundproofing in party walls in row houses, or in the ceilings between the first and second floor of a house.
The fears of cancer and other health problems caused a reduction in the value of real estate. Costly remedial measures were recommended. The federal government set guidelines for reducing formaldehyde levels in houses, and removal techniques were specified. The initial threshold level set for formaldehyde gas was 1.0 part per million (ppm). As testing methods improved, the level was brought down to 0.5 ppm and, eventually 0.1 ppm, a very conservative level.
The most obvious remedial measure was to have the UFFI removed. This often involved the removal of significant amounts of plaster or other wall finishes. We know of one case where every single brick was removed from the exterior of a house. One of the other remedial measures included the installation of a heat recovery ventilator to the house, to expel the UFFI-tainted house air and bring in fresh air.
In comically ironic fashion, the government then established a grant program to have the foam removed. The great UFFI make-work project was in full swing. A court case was initiated in Quebec, in which the claimants accused the federal government, manufacturers and others of bringing a dangerous material to the market. Those in charge of designing and refining remedial measures set out to find the worst cases to set guidelines, but they encountered an unexpected problem. They could not find any UFFI insulated houses with formaldehyde gas levels above 0.1 ppm, let alone 0.5 ppm or 1.0 ppm. In fact, in reviewing several thousand files, not one house was found with levels of formaldehyde, that remained above 0.1 ppm. The highest levels were found in homes with brand-new carpeting, which were tested on a hot summer day. The same house tested two weeks later showed levels typical of any house, with or without UFFI. It became known that the levels of formaldehyde decrease rapidly after the foam has been installed. Within several days of the application, formaldehyde levels typically return to normal house levels. The presence of UFFI does not affect
the amount of formaldehyde in the indoor air. Indeed, while statistically insignificant, the homes tested were found, on average, to have formaldehyde levels slightly below that of homes of similar ages without UFFI.
When no correlation could be found between formaldehyde gas and health problems, other possible problems related to UFFI were investigated. Mould and fungi, dust mites, and, unnamed “UFFI gases” were all investigated as possibilities. None
were linked to UFFI. There was no damage to house framing or materials caused by UFFI.
UFFI is one of the most thoroughly investigated and most innocuous building products to be used. After the longest and most expensive (at that time) civil case
ever held in Canada (eight years) was concluded in the Quebec Superior Court, not only was no basis for a settlement found, but the plaintiffs were obliged to pay most of the costs.
Clearly, urea formaldehyde foam insulation has not been shown to be a health concern. Those who have urea formaldehyde foam insulation in their homes should enjoy their houses, and sleep well at night. The owners of properties with this type of insulation should not be penalized financially, and no stigma should be attached to these homes. UFFI is simply not the problem it was once feared to be. Other household materials and products can produce formaldehyde, and other air pollutants for that matter. If you suspect your indoor air quality to be poor, there are Environmental Consultants listed in the Yellow Pages of your phone book, often in the Business and Industrial section.
Article provided courtesy of Carson Dunlop, one of Canada’s leading home inspection firms.