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:
- Levels of formaldehyde gas decrease rapidly as
the insulation cures. The emission of formaldehyde gas may occur for
up to 10 years.
- 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
- 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
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