Written by Randy Howland

Formaldehyde is found virtually everywhere--indoors and outdoors. It is part of the air that we breathe. Formaldehyde occurs naturally and is also man-made. Our own bodies emit levels of formaldehyde. Some of the vegetables that we eat, such as cabbage and Brussel sprouts, also emit formaldehyde gas when they are cooked.

Over the course of history, man has learned to incorporate some natural materials, such as formaldehyde, and use them in products of daily life. Formaldehyde has been manufactured and sold in many of the products that we use on a daily basis, for over 100 years. Man-made formaldehyde is the same as the natural material. Formaldehyde is most commonly associated with embalming.

Formaldehyde is also widely used in building materials. It is especially used in glue, foam insulation and pressed wood products, such as, plywood, particle board, paneling, wood finishes and furniture. Many floor coverings, like carpeting, padding, and adhesives also contain formaldehyde. Other products include paper products, cosmetics, deodorants, shampoos, fabric dyes, inks, and air and carpet deodorizers. When we purchase a new car or install new carpeting, we can detect the smell of formaldehyde in these products.

Small amounts of formaldehyde are not harmful. It is the inhalation of too much formaldehyde gas, that causes problems. Like other natural, but potentially-dangerous materials, the toxicity of formaldehyde gas intake, depends on the individual. Low level-exposure to this product may create the following symptoms: runny nose, sore throat, cough, headaches, fatigue and breathing difficulties. Acute exposure may include abdominal pain, coma, convulsions, diarrhea, and respiratory problems, such as asthma, bronchitis or pneumonia.

The Arab Oil Embargo, of the early 1970s, created a need for better insulation in existing homes, so that they would become energy efficient. The price of heating oil was, now, higher than the cost of installing insulation. This created an increasing demand for Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation, mostly known as UFFI. Air and urea formaldehyde resin were combined, to form an injectable mixture to insulate existing houses. This material was also used in mobile home construction. Its installation did not require the dismantling of walls, as would conventional fiberglass insulation. Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation could be easily injected into the spaces between already existing walls. Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation is an excellent, closed-cell insulator.

This form of insulation was used extensively in Canada and the U.S. during that time, especially during the period from 1975 to 1978. In Canada, the government offered financial incentives for its use.

The first real problem arose in mobile homes, which were poorly ventilated, due to the manufacturers improperly preparing the insulation. When improper percentages of resin and formaldehyde are mixed under humid atmospheric conditions, higher levels of formaldehyde gas are created. Mobile home owners complained of respiratory difficulties, eye irritation, running noses, nosebleeds, headaches and fatigue. This concerned the federal governments of Canada and the United States, who suspected that the Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation was the culprit. The Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the sale of UFFI in the United States in 1982. Shortly thereafter, laws were enacted to further ban its use. However, in April of 1983, the U.S. Court of Appeals repealed the law, due to insubstantial evidence of UFFI contamination.

To the present day, the fear of cancer and other health problems and the decrease in property value of homes insulated with UFFI, have given it a stigma from which it has been recovered. Since 1993, a declaration of the presence of UFFI has not been required for mortgage insurance, under the National Housing Act. However, owners of homes containing UFFI may still be required to submit declarations of the presence of this product to local mortgage insurances.

It is important to note that health problems were never directly linked to UFFI. In many of the mobile homes that were re-examined a few weeks later, tests showed that the present wood paneling and carpeting emitted higher levels of formaldehyde gas than the insulation in the walls. Within two weeks, the levels of gas were back to an acceptable level.

Other observations about formaldehyde are as follows:

  1. Levels of formaldehyde gas decrease rapidly as the insulation cures. The emission of formaldehyde gas may occur for up to 10 years.
  2. Currently, UFFI is still in use in Europe, where it has never been banned and it is still considered one of the better retrofit insulations
  3. In Canada, the longest and most expensive civil case against UFFI, concluded that there was not any basis for a settlement, and the plaintiffs were obliged to pay most of the court costs.

Additional Information about Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation provided by the Connecticut State Department of Health
During the past 20 years the State of Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH) has had extensive involvement in assessing risks posed by urea formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI).

 
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