There is ever-increasing awareness of the chemicals we come into contact with every day, particularly if you or a member of your family has asthma or allergies. We created the asthma & allergy friendly® Certification Program to help you improve your indoor air environment by identifying products and services that can help to reduce allergens and create a healthier home environment.
But what is it that makes some insulation better for the indoor environment than others, and where do we draw the line to decide to certify insulation as asthma & allergy friendly®? We hope that the questions below will clarify this. Let us know if you have more questions!
Why do we certify insulation?
Our goal in the asthma & allergy friendly® Certification Program is to create healthier indoor air for you and your family, and so we look at all elements of the indoor environment. Some types of insulation can contain or release chemicals that can cause sensitivity, particularly while they are being installed and directly afterwards. There can be fibres, airborne particles, and dust released during and after installation. And some insulation can support mold growth.
We take a balanced approach in certifying products. We want to identify insulation that does not contain materials that are unnecessarily harmful. And we want to make sure that any necessary chemicals that can sometimes cause an allergic reaction are present at as low a level as is needed for them to function as intended.
What kind of insulation do we certify and why?
We certify fiberglass insulation. This is because it is a material which can be made without some of the potentially sensitising chemicals that are present in some types of insulation, such as halogenated flame retardants. It is also relatively cost-effective, and therefore provides a reasonable option for consumers wishing to find healthier options for their homes.
What do we look for in insulation?
We look at four areas when we test fiberglass insulation.
1. Dust and fibers released during installation
The first is the dust and fibers released during installation.
We install insulation in an environmentally-controlled chamber. During the installation we measure the amount of dust that is produced, and the amount of small fibers that are released into the air. We agitate the dust during this test, to mimic a person walking around near the insulation. We measure the amount of dust and fibers that are produced, and set strict limits for those.
Why can dust and fibers be harmful?
Airborne fibers and dust can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. This can affect anyone, although the effects are likely to be stronger in those with asthma or allergies. This is kind of irritation does not usually cause long-term damage. Fibers can also irritate the skin, however this is not due to any chemicals in the fibers but rather that because of the way they are structured they can scratch the skin.
Most exposure to the dust and fibers in fiberglass insulation occurs in people whose job is to install insulation. The fibers are generally only released during and just after installation.
The second is how many VOCs are emitted when the insulation is installed. VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) are chemical compounds that easily become vapours or gases. When you can smell paints, adhesives, cleaners, insect repellents, new furniture, printer fluid etc., these smells are caused by VOCs being released.
We place a sample of insulation in an environmentally controlled chamber, where we can measure all of the VOCs released over 14 days. We record the levels after 24, 48, and 336 hours, to make sure that throughout this time period the levels remain low.
Why do we do VOC tests?
Exposure to VOCs can cause irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract, headaches, dizziness, and other side-effects. These can impact more on people with sensitive respiratory systems, such as people with asthma and certain allergies. We want to make sure that VOC emissions are as low as possible. However, if you are someone with asthma or nasal allergies, it would still be better for you to avoid being in the room during or directly after insulation installation.
3. Resistance to mold growth
The third is whether or not the insulation supports mold growth. It is sometimes claimed that fiberglass insulation is inherently resistant to mold growth. However, some studies have shown that mold can grow on fiberglass insulation, particularly when the right moisture and temperature conditions are present. So we place mold spores on pieces of insulation in the lab, and keep them at high temperature and humidity for four weeks to see if the mold spreads. Only insulation that does not support mold growth is eligible for certification.
4. Constituent review
The fourth is the make-up of the insulation. We do a detailed assessment of all the materials used to make the insulation, and what concentration they are present at. There are many chemicals which are known to irritate skin and/or eyes or to which certain people can be particularly sensitive. But if they are present at a suitably low level and used correctly this is unlikely to cause problems.
Why do we do a constituent review?
We want to make sure that any potentially irritant or sensitising chemicals are present as a low enough level so that the probability of a reaction to them is as low as possible. We therefore look at all the constituents of the insulation.
One particular issue relating to insulation is the flame retardant that is required in some forms of insulation for safety reason. Traditionally the type of flame retardant used in many types of insulation is called a halogenated flame retardant, and the most common form was called HBCD. HBCD is a pollutant, and can increase the toxicity of a building. It has now been banned in many countries, and has been replaced other materials. However, most of these other materials have similar chemical structures to HBCD, and there is a lack of long-term evidence on their impacts. By its nature fiberglass insulation does not need to have flame retardants in it for safety reasons. Our certification standard requires that none of these flame retardants are present.
Is there insulation that is definitely safe?
Unfortunately, no. Given the variability between people, and the variety of sensitivities and allergic responses that different people can have, it is simply not possible to say a type of insulation will not cause sensitivities for anyone.
But there are definitely some insulation that create a healthier indoor environment than others, because they emit lower VOCs in your home over time, cause low levels of dust and fibers to be released during installation, do not support the growth of mold, and have low levels of sensitising chemicals. However, if you have had a reaction to VOCs in the past or you know that you are sensitive to some of the chemicals that are in household furnishings, you should take sensible precautions. Avoid being present when the insulation is installed, and make sure that the area is well-ventilated. Anyone who is involved in installing insulation should use personal protective equipment, whether or not they have any sensitivities to chemicals or asthma or allergies.
What else do we certify?
We have 46 different asthma & allergy friendly® certification standards for products and services, addressing all areas of the indoor air environment. Some of these relate to products which remove allergens and dust from indoor air, like vacuum cleaners, air cleaners, dehumidifiers, and washing machines. Some of them relate to products where it is important not to provide an easy home for allergens and that it is possible to remove allergen from them – like bedding, toys, and flooring. And some of them relate to household products that should make as little an impact on the indoor air as possible – like insulation, flooring and paint.
You can find out which products are certified asthma & allergy friendly® and read more here: www.asthmaandallergyfriendly.com