Harmful Chemicals and Health Hazards

There are primarily seven potentially toxic chemicals in various types of insulation material. These include brominated flame retardants, chlorinated flame retardants, ethanolamine, formaldehyde, isocyanates, polyethylene glycol nonylphenyl ether and styrene.

The following chart contains information concerning materials and products that may contain these chemicals and you can click on the chemical names to link to information on the health concerns associated with each chemical and what you can do to avoid those risks.

When discussing the health effects of harmful chemicals, it’s important to recognize that these effects may play out over both the short and the long term. With a better sense of how a chemical might affect us, we can work to take the best preventive action.

An acute, or short-term, health effect occurs when symptoms develop rapidly after exposure to a substance – such as a cough. For some, exposure to specific chemicals may result in effects that are minimal or are readily alleviated. However, for those that are pre-disposed or sensitized to these triggers, the effects can be quite harmful, severe and even persistent.

A chronic, or long-term, health effect – such as asthma – has symptoms that develop slowly over a long period of time or which recur frequently.

Material Source Cost Chemical(s) of Concern Types Applications
Fiberglass, Residential Glass $ N/A Batts/Rolls Walls, Floors, Ceilings
Loose Fill/Blow In Walls, Attic Floors
Fiberglass, Commercial Glass $ Formaldehyde** Batts/Rolls Walls, Floors, Ceilings
Loose Fill/Blow In Walls, Attic Floors
Mineral Wool Natural rock or iron ore $$ Formaldehyde*** Batts/Rolls Walls, Floors, Ceilings
Loose Fill/Blow In Walls, Attic floors
Rigid boardstock Walls, Roof, Below-grade
Cellulose Newspaper $ N/A* Loose Fill/Blow In Walls, Floors, Ceilings
Walls, Attic floors
Natural Wool Sheep $$$ N/A Batts/Rolls Walls, Floors, Ceilings
Cotton Cotton $$ N/A* Batts/Rolls Walls, Floors, Ceilings
Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) Oil $$ Styrene, Flame Retardants (brominated) Foam Board Walls, Floors, Ceilings, Roofs, Below-grade
Extruded Polystyrene (XPS) Oil $$ Styrene, Flame Retardants (brominated) Foam Board Walls, Floors, Ceilings, Roofs, Below-grade
Polyisocyanurate (Polyiso) Oil $$ Flame Retardants (chlorinated) Foam Board Walls, Floors, Ceilings, Roofs
Walls, Attic floors
Polyurethane (SPF) Oil $$ Isocyanates, Flame Retardants (chlorinated), Ethanolomine, Polyethylene glycol nonylphenyl ether Spray Foam Walls, Floors, Ceilings, Roofs
Walls, Attic floors
Cementitious Foam Magnesium Oxide Cement $$ N/A Spray cement Walls, Attic Floors
Cellular Glass Glass $$$ N/A Rigid boardstock Walls, Roof, Below-grade

* Most of these products are treated with borate flame retardants. While previously thought to have minimal health concerns, the European Union and Canada are reviewing borate's toxicity for reproductive health.

** Formaldehyde is no longer used in the production of lightweight residential fiberglass insulation, but still can be found in some commercial insulation used in multi-family buildings.

*** Mineral wool insulation can be found that is formaldehyde free.

NOTE: Fiberglass, mineral wool, cotton and cellulose may cause respiratory irritation through respirable fibers.