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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! 

The Epidemic of Asthma

The Epidemic of Asthma

If you don’t suffer from a certain disease or know someone who does, it can often evade your concern or thinking.  Asthma is one such disease for me, and aside from drug commercials on the internet and TV, I didn’t give much thought to it.  “Pandemics” seem to have taken over our health radar, while asthma continually advances in cases every year. 

Asthma is a chronic disease that causes airways to become inflamed, making it hard to breathe. Although it is incurable, asthma can be managed so that it doesn’t recur by avoiding triggers, taking medications to prevent symptoms and preparing to treat asthma episodes if they occur. (aafa.org) About 300 million people worldwide have asthma, with projections for it to increase to another 100 million by 2025 (The Global Asthma Report, Auckland, New Zealand, 2018). 

According to Oxford Languages, an epidemic is “a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time.”  Asthma is not an infectious disease, yet it is called an epidemic because of the sharp increase of cases since the 1960s in many developed countries.  This sparked a number of studies in the 1990’s, confirming that “asthma is one of the most common chronic diseases across the globe in all age groups and there is substantial variation in asthma prevalence worldwide.”  (2019 study on the Epidemiology of Asthma)  It is difficult to define, but the research community finds it helpful to define it by observable traits (phenotypes) which are composed of symptoms (such as wheeze or cough) and objective measures (such as lung function and biomarkers in blood, exhaled breath, sputum, and/or urine). 

What causes asthma?

Researchers prefer to use the word “trigger” instead of “cause”.  However, some of the airborne triggers are House dust mite (HDM), Animal hair and dander, Pollen exposure, Mold (fungal) spores, and  Thunderstorm asthma (most prevalent in Australia where high pollen counts are released during a unique type of thunderstorm).  Habits like parental or personal smoking tend to increase risk for asthma.  Occupational triggers such as cleaning agents, paints, or dust may increase risk (a comprehensive list can be found here), and there seems to be genetic predisposition for it also. 

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), asthma tends to peak in September in the US due to a confluence of several risk factors.  This month peaks in ragweed pollen, a common fall allergy; more falling leaves mean more mold spores in the air, and the return to school causes more respiratory illness in families. In particular, the third week of September is usually the highest in numbers of doctor visits and hospital stays due to asthma attacks, and children are the most affected.  (aafa.org)

Asthma is a problem in children because their lungs are still developing, and continue to develop until they become adults.  Asthma may impair airway development and reduce their maximum lung function, and these deficits may persist into adulthood.  When occurring first in adults, asthma may accelerate lung function decline and increase the risk of fixed airflow obstruction, especially for smokers with asthma.  People with asthma are more susceptible to infections and non-communicable additional chronic conditions (comorbidities) such as diabetes, osteoporosis, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular diseases, and issues with mental illness such as anxiety and depression. (2019 study)

Asthma can’t be cured, but it can be controlled.  It’s controlled through avoiding triggers, and/or the use of medication.  Because avoiding triggers could be potentially be better for your body and your budget, here’s some advice on how to do that (adapted from mayoclinic.org):

  • Use air conditioning to establish a clean, comfortable environment in your home.  Air conditioning allows you to control:

    • Humidity: most sources set the optimal humidity between 30-50% (if it goes well above that, use a dehumidifier).  At this range, dust mites are lower in concentration.

    • Pollen: with air conditioning, you’re able to close the windows on high-pollen days

  • Use filtration to keep airborne contaminants low!  You can do this by regularly changing your HVAC home filters (and possibly increasing the MERV rating on them), or adding a standalone HEPA filter to one or more rooms in your home.  In addition, bi-polar ionizers like our Germ Defender and Whole Home Polar Ionizer will cause larger contaminant particles to clump together and be more easily filtered or vacuumed.

  • Clean your home regularly, once a week, with a HEPA vacuum cleaner and non-toxic all surface cleaner like TotalClean.  If you can’t keep your home clean by yourself, ask someone to help you.

  • Prevent mold from growing in your home by monitoring wet areas like bathrooms and under sinks.  Mold can also intrude if you don’t clean gutters or remove debris from around the house on a regular basis, so try to keep your gutters and the area directly around your home clean too.

  • Keep pet dander under control by brushing pets outside and bathing them regularly with a moisturizing shampoo.

  • Remove hard-to-clean surfaces like carpet and deep rugs, and avoid down-filled pillows and furniture. 

  • Consider avoiding perfumes and heavily-scented personal products, candles and cleaning products.

  • Because cold air can trigger asthma, cover your mouth and nose when you go outside in cold temperatures.  

In addition, since asthma can be exacerbated by excess weight and heartburn, it’s important to take care of yourself with moderate exercise (your doctor can help with advice) and medication if acid reflux is an issue.  

If you are among those who deal with asthma on a regular basis, remember that surrounding yourself with a clean, comfortable environment can be the best investment in your health and life.  Changes like removing fragrances and adding an air purifier can make a big difference in the way you feel.   You are definitely your best advocate in minimizing the effects of this disease!

Photo by Sahej Brar on Unsplash