Urban Natural Homes March 12, 2016

Is Old Insulation Hazardous?


In my recent blog article, Baby it’s Cold Outside, Part #2: Insulation, we looked at options for current insulation materials. But what about already existing insulation? The majority of homes in our area are pre-existing and come with some form of older insulation. When walking through old homes you can’t help but wonder about the effectiveness, and perhaps even more importantly, the safety of these older insulation products. As far as effectiveness, that is undoubtedly a case-by-case matter to take up with a professional inspector or remodeler. But as for the safety issue, I decided to do some research and here is what I found…

Let’s start with fiberglass. About 90% of homes in the US have some fiberglass insulation. Although the World Health Organization removed fiberglass insulation from its list of possible carcinogens in 2001, you still need proper protection if you’re going to be handling it as microscopic slivers of glass can break loose and irritate your skin and respiratory system. Be sure to wear gloves, goggles, a dust mask and protective clothing when handling fiberglass insulation.

The next potentially hazardous insulating material is urea-formaldehyde foam (which is usually gray or yellow and brittle), which was banned in the 1970’s when it was found to be causing elevated levels of formaldehyde in homes. However, what currently remains of the foam isn’t likely to be an issue as the formaldehyde has undoubtedly out-gassed by now. But be aware that when heated and burned (i.e., in the case of a fire), this foam will release very toxic substances into the surrounding air; this is one of the reasons fire fighters routinely wear masks.

The final insulating culprit—asbestos—probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone. The word asbestos originated from the Greek word for “inextinguishable” and when it was first introduced was considered a miracle product. It’s made from naturally occurring minerals and is fireproof, durable, lightweight and an excellent insulator. It was used in a myriad of building materials including siding, floor tiles, roofing materials, pipe coverings, and—you got it—general home insulation. However, the dark side of asbestos was slowly revealed as it was proven to be the cause of two types of lung cancer including mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the chest and abdominal cavity) and asbestosis (in which the lungs become scarred with fibrous tissue). Asbestos products weren’t officially banned in the US until 1989, but they were slowly phased out long before then as the potential health issues associated with exposure were discovered. While most people are exposed to small amounts of asbestos at some point in their lives and are fine, the risk of lung cancer increases with the number of fibers inhaled. So, it makes sense to be cautious if the presence of asbestos is suspected in your home. What do you do if you live in a home built before 1989 and you suspect the presence of asbestos? First off, know that the mere presence of asbestos isn’t hazardous… problems arise when asbestos becomes damaged or disturbed and becomes airborne. So the best thing you can do with asbestos that is in good condition is to leave it alone. Damaged asbestos can be either encapsulated with a sealant or enclosed by surrounding it with a protective wrap or jacket. Removal is the most expensive method and poses the greatest risk of fiber release. However, when remodeling or if the asbestos material is extremely damaged, you may not have a choice. Asbestos removal should be carried out by a professional who is trained in handling asbestos material and the type of professional will depend on the type of product being removed. You can look to hiring a general asbestos contractor, or, in some cases, look to a professional trained to handle specific products containing asbestos.