Report suggests alternatives to toxic insulation and sealants

This report supplements HBN’s ongoing focus on insulation and sealants in affordable housing in its HomeFree project.
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Healthy Building Network (HBN) released Making Affordable Multifamily Housing More Energy Efficient: A Guide to Healthier Upgrade Materials, a report made in collaboration with the Energy Efficiency for All (EEFA) initiative and other partners, to reveal ways people can improve energy efficiency and reduce toxic chemical exposures.

The report highlights chemicals of concern commonly found in insulation and sealant products and suggests healthier material options for weatherization programs. The study also includes relative cost information, performance characteristics, installation and code considerations, and introduces a discussion of policies that may impact material decisions.

“As we work to improve the energy efficiency of our buildings, we must also weigh the potential health impacts of building materials on workers, occupants, and the broader environment. This report provides important details and recommendations for affordable, multifamily energy efficiency upgrades and the broader construction market,” said Rebecca Stamm, HBN senior researcher and a lead author of the report.

Among the findings:

  • Chemicals of highest concern in insulation and sealant products include formaldehyde-based binders, halogenated flame retardants, orthophthalates, isocyanates, and organotins.
  • A wide range of insulation products are currently being used in multifamily energy-efficiency upgrades. Foam products like spray polyurethane foam (SPF) contain chemicals of concern. Some formulations of SPF were found to be common for certain applications. In each of these applications, however, alternative, less hazardous products (such as blown or batt fiberglass) were also used and were often equally common.
  • Commonly used fiberglass and cellulose insulations are some of the highest ranked from a health perspective and have the lowest installed cost for any given R-value. While the R-value per inch is higher for many foam products, the R-value per dollar may not be.
  • Polyurethane spray foam sealants have the lowest relative cost to seal a given space because of their low density, but they contain many chemicals of high concern. Some non-isocyanate (non-polyurethane) spray foam sealants are becoming available, but because there is little or no public disclosure of their contents, it is unknown whether they are less toxic than polyurethane spray foam sealants. The report suggests caulk-type sealants or foam sealing products that are not reacted on site.
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