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Fiberglass: the air quality problem you didn’t consider

Fiberglass: the air quality problem you didn’t consider

With extreme weather issues such as storms and fires in the news, we can become very focused on mold from water damage and particulate matter (PM) from air pollution like smoke, but another problem has been silently causing lung and whole-body issues for decades: fiberglass insulation.

Fiberglass insulation, also known as glass wool, was accidentally invented in the 1930’s and patented in 1938 as Fiberglas.  It became a popular insulation for building and comes in batts, with a paper or plastic backing, or is available in loose form in bags, that can be blown into place.  Now fiberglass is used in: 

  • Appliances like dishwashers, refrigerators, ovens, exhaust fans, clothes dryers
  • Kerosene heaters and wood-burning stoves
  • roof shingles
  • Beds (also known as a silica sock)
  • Cigarette filters
  • HEPA and HVAC filters
  • Light fixtures
  • Carpets
  • Packing tape
  • And even some brands of toothpaste!

Children may be especially vulnerable to potential effects from fiberglass particle inhalation. “We’ve seen a substantial increase in air quality concerns from homeowners with young children experiencing chronic cough and eye irritation,” says Jeffrey Bradley, president of IndoorDoctor LLC. Bradley says fiberglass is often the culprit. (iqair.com)

Like most materials, fiberglass insulation degrades over time, and water speeds up the degradation process.  Therefore, although blown-in insulation is a popular choice for insulating attics and walls, leaving fiberglass exposed to humid air can cause the fibers to break and become airborne.  Typically, most manufacturers warn about wearing masks if you manually “disturb” the insulation by pushing past it or cutting into it.  However, loose fiberglass that is exposed to air currents can pick up these small fibers without manual disturbance, resulting in unhealthy PM2.5 levels in homes where it gets entrained into the air conditioning system.  

One woman has detailed her family’s project to remove all the fiberglass from their house after it was determined that fiberglass dust was making her sick.  Fiberglassawareness.com is a very useful website with many photos of where fiberglass is used in homes, and even cars and other buildings where you may not suspect it.  That pink (or yellow or white or green) stuff that you thought remained in the attic, doesn’t always stay where it belongs!  Wherever you can see exposed fiberglass, it may be emitting small particles into the air.  That means if it is peeking out of the ends of wrapped ducts, or falling (sometimes imperceptibly) out of can light fixtures, or being sucked into your AC system through small leaks in the ducts, it is in the air you breathe and can cause a myriad of health issues.  This page details a long list of fiberglass-exposure symptoms which overlap with mold-exposure symptoms, fibromyalgia symptoms, and auto-immune disorder symptoms, so the main culprit can be hard to diagnose.  In addition, many fiberglass insulation products use:

  • Phenol formaldehyde to bind the fiberglass fibers together (iqair.com), and the off-gassing of formaldehyde can cause similar symptoms. Formaldehyde is a carcinogen and exposure to fiberglass insulation formaldehyde causes brain cancer. According to John D. Spengler et.al., in the "Indoor Air Quality Handbook," residents of mobile homes who are exposed to fiberglass insulation are at increased risk of brain cancer. 
  • Styrene or Vinyl-Benzene is found in fiberglass insulation, and because benzene is used in many home other consumer products like water bottles, convenience food trays and wrappers, and feminine products, it contributes to a thick low-lying VOC cloud in some homes. According to Teresa Holler in the book "Holler for Your Health," styrene is toxic to the nervous system and exposure to styrene in fiberglass insulation causes behavioral changes, concentration problems, depression, tiredness, headaches, memory problems and weakness.  According to Andre E. Baert in the book "Biomedical and Health Research," long-term exposure to styrene in fiberglass insulation causes brain tumors and cancer. (ehow.com)
  • Methyl-ethyl-ketone (MEK) is used as a binder in some fiberglass.  Nick H. Proctor et.al., in the book "Proctor and Hughes' Chemical Hazards of the Workplace," list methyl ethyl ketone as a neurotoxin and exposure to MEK in fiberglass insulation as a cause for dizziness, nausea, headaches, depression and unconsciousness. (ehow.com)

According to the California Department of Public Health, frequent exposure to fiberglass insulation causes permanent changes in the central nervous system, the symptoms of which include personality changes, poor coordination, fatigue and poor concentration.(ehow.com)

How do you get rid of fiberglass in the air?  In some cases “encapsulation” can be an answer, which means that you can add a layer of protection over it.  We should never see exposed fiberglass (the brown paper side is supposed to be installed on the “warm” side, which in southern climates leaves the fiberglass exposed to the inside of the attic).  This real estate inspector wrote an article on encapsulation from the point of view that fiberglass is a poor air barrier and therefore should have a proper air barrier on both sides.  However, he notes at the end that a homeowner should not try to encapsulate any fiberglass himself, because of the risk of causing mold if moisture cannot escape.  

Here’s how you can minimize your exposure to fiberglass: 

  • Repair damaged sections of fiberglass insulation with proper foil duct tape.
  • If you have blown-in fiberglass in your attic or walls, seal all penetrations such as ceiling fixtures, wire and plumbing penetrations, light switches, and cracks in drywall
  • Check the internal condition of any “duct board” ducts or ducts internally insulated with fiberglass.  Unfortunately these degrade over time and cause the fibers to become entrained in the air.
  • If your health issues have not resolved, consider removing some or all of the fiberglass that could be causing them. 
  • Replace fiberglass insulation with ducts that are insulated with air bubble wrap, and walls and ceiling insulation with spray foam or cellulose insulation (however, be aware that cellulose insulation is treated with fire retardants to make it safe, which can cause other health issues to those who are sensitive). (nachi.org)

If you know or suspect that your health problems are being caused by fiberglass or VOCs that come from the fiberglass, keep a journal of how you feel during the day at different times, including where you are, what you are doing,  if the building’s HVAC is running, what you are wearing, eating, working with, etc.  It’s possible that you can find the link by putting the pieces together from your experiences, and from others’ experiences.  Research sites of others with environmental and chemical sensitivities, such as Fiberglassawareness.com, mychemicalfreehouse.net, and nontoxicforhealth.com (the latter two have a lot of scientific research on them), and don’t give up! 

Sealing Air Channels in Your Attic

Sealing Air Channels in Your Attic

Anytime there is a significant temperature difference between the inside and outside of your home, good air-sealing and insulation will pay dividends in energy savings, air quality and avoiding damage to your home.  If you don’t understand what an attic bypass is, this video gives a number of great examples.  The host discourages homeowners from doing their own air sealing, but the fact is that not all states require attics to be air sealed before adding insulation to the attic (unlike Minnesota).  Therefore, you may be hard-pressed to find a contractor in your area who is knowledgeable about doing this.  However, if you are physically agile and willing to put in some time and effort, it’s achievable!  

The best times to get up there and tackle air sealing in your attic is during a swing season when you’re not using your heater or air conditioner (it’s a comfortable temperature in the attic).  Also, do it BEFORE adding any more insulation (you don’t want to be digging through your new insulation to find these gaps!)

Don’t forget to dress appropriately!  You’ll need:

  • Old clothes that can be laundered or thrown away, and a hat
  • Vinyl gloves to keep the sprayfoam off your hands (it’s sticky and stains!)
  • A headlamp if there’s not adequate lighting everywhere 
  • A respirator to prevent inhalation of fiberglass and dust (it’s good to keep extra cartridges on hand)
  • Safety glasses (because spray foam gets everywhere, trust me!) 
  • Knee pads (because low attics require a lot of crawling!)
  • Seal your cellphone in a ziploc plastic bag if you bring it with you (because spray foam gets everywhere, trust me!)

Here are some typical areas you will want to address:

Sealing Duct Shafts

According to Building America, a government program for testing and education about energy-efficient homebuilding, the proper way to seal duct shafts involves cutting a piece of plywood, rigid foam, or drywall to fit around the ducts, applying a bead of sealant like caulk to the supporting surface, fitting and securing the board with screws or nails, and applying more sealant around the inner and outer edges.  This is a great idea, except that caulk doesn’t usually cut it.  With the advent of spray foam in a can, it’s easier to get a good seal with spray foam than with caulk because the foam continues to expand for some time and will fill any voids.  

To seal gaps in and around ductwork, this video is great.  It shows several different types of repairs.  If you’re a novice, it might seem like you could just use “duct tape” on ducts, right?  Wrong!  Regular duct tape does not work well long-term on HVAC ducts.  It does not form an air-tight seal and over time, dries out and disintegrates.  That’s why you’ll want to use the following sealants instead:

  • Using Air Duct Sealant (paste, also called mastic) and fiberglass tape or fiberglass cloth to patch small holes and larger gaps in ductwork (for a small kit, check here)
  • Using spray foam to seal around ducts where they penetrate walls or unconditioned space like the attic or crawlspace.  There are different formulations in spray foam:
  • Use foil tape to seal around loose ends of insulation.  If there are any leaks in the ductwork, this will minimize air leakage in/out of the duct.  
  • Check out our article on sealing your registers: you’ll want to do this to prevent condensation on the grilles and registers in your rooms!

I had an idea that my attic was leaky; I just didn’t know the extent of it until renovating for a new HVAC system.  I found a shaft used to hold ductwork that was open to the attic, but plunged down one floor and shared a wall with my bedroom.  This air space channeled hot/cold dusty air from my unconditioned attic right down the wall and it was NOT insulated.  

Because the shaft was rectangular and housed 2 round ducts in it, I decided to stuff some loose fiberglass around the ducts at the top and spray foam over them; the fiberglass only acted to plug large gaps and keep the foam from falling down the shaft before it hardened.  The only thing to remember is that the foam must contact solid surfaces, like foil-covered insulation, wood, or foam board, in order to make a continuous seal.  If I had left loose fiberglass sticking up out of the shaft, the air could pass right through it. 

Insulating Electrical Boxes and Can Lights

Here is something I’ve been wondering about for quite a while.  I have a number of electrical boxes for ceiling fans, lights and even the bathroom vent which are not sealed.  What kind of sealant should I use?  According to this short video (with happy music) by the EPA, spray foam comes to the rescue again!  As long as your fixture box doesn’t generate heat, you are fine with spray foam.  This brings us to can lights.  Foam and insulation must not come into contact with older style can lights (which use incandescent, halogen or another heat-generating bulb) because of fire risk.  In this case, you’ll want to purchase a can light cover with fire rating specs in order to safely insulate the area around the light.  It can be sealed with spray foam around the bottom perimeter of the cover to the sheetrock.  Again, you do not want to let the spray foam contact any part of the can light, which can get very hot, so be sure to hold it down to the sheetrock when spraying, and minimize any holes necessary to accomodate electrical wires going to the light.  

It’s also recommended to plug holes drilled for electrical wires through the top plates of your walls (typically these are wood 2x4’s or 2x6’s).  If your local code requires that these penetrations be sealed with a fire retardant sprayfoam, then Great Stuff Fireblock with smart dispenser ($10) will work. 

If you want to keep your heating and air conditioning system working well, prevent mold and moisture damage, lower humidity in your home as well as lower energy costs, tackling air sealing in your attic is a must!

Photo by Will Francis on Unsplash