Cruising the Internet for information will eventually lead one to vehement ‘consumer advocate’ blog sites bent on demonizing the use of anything man-made. Don’t use stainless steel utensils! The lead will kill your children! Don’t drink decaffeinated coffee! The formaldehyde will kill you! The homebuilding industry is not without these cries of alarm. Vinyl flooring has been on the chopping block for a while because, according to Greenpeace, it “has been associated with” asthma in children and the elderly. Associated with? Is it really possible to draw such a conclusion when hundreds of other variables are present in any given setting? Plus, let us not forget that vinyl has been used in residential and commercial construction for over 30 years as a replacement for asbestos tiles.
The point is, despite all the fear-mongering, man-made substances are not as bad as some would have us think. A sense of reason is all that is necessary to find truth amid the warnings. Polyurethane foam is one product that has taken a real beating from the uber-environmentalists. There are claims of its perceived toxicity causing brain damage in children and having carcinogenic emissions that account for the increase in cancer rates among all demographics. Many more even point to the damaging effects polyurethane has on the environment when disposed of. Without sounding too condescending, these claims are made without realizing all the facts. Let’s take an honest look at polyurethane foam insulation, without any bias either on the side of the manufacturer or the environmentalist.
First of all, when polyurethane foam is fully expanded and cured it is chemically inert. According to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, completely reacted polyurethane has no ability to react with other elements or compounds. That means there are no emissions. In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration views polyurethane foam as so safe they have not found reason to impose exposure limits. The same organization has found there is no cause for regulating its use in case of carcinogenicity. The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists agrees. Now, that is not to say one could eat polyurethane foam with some Fava beans and a nice Chianti. It is not a food product. When flame is applied to polyurethane, carbon monoxide is produced. We know how harmful that stuff is, but most people don’t set out to light their house on fire and even if they did there are likely much bigger issues to deal with.
Let’s look at the environmental aspect of polyurethane foam. According to a report from the well-respected European Diisocyanate and Polyol Producers Association (ISOPA), about 10% of chlorine produced world-wide is used to manufacture the major components in polyurethane. Without that use, the chlorine is released as an “inert salt” into the environment. ISOPA has also reported the efficiency in producing low density polyurethane foam, fewer resources per unit volume are required. Plus, after use the foam can be recovered and used in other applications.
In terms of insulation specifically, polyurethane foam plays a unique role. Its proper application means a resistance to moisture, an obstruction for invading insects or critters, and a highly efficient thermal barrier. The nature of the foam means every nook and cranny is filled, disallowing heating and cooling dollars from escaping. Fewer air leaks means fewer dollars spent on heating and cooling the indoor space, which in turn means a diminished use of fossil fuels. Additionally, let us not forget the insulating characteristics of polyurethane foam are saving heating and cooling dollars in transportation, refrigeration, and heat transport as well.
The durability and lightweight characteristics of polyurethane foam mean there is a wider opportunity for its use. Such as in food preservation, vehicles, appliances and furniture. When an insulating material can last as long as all the other working parts of the item in question, then valuable resources on a broader spectrum are saved. A vehicle is insulated with polyurethane foam, it is lighter. A lighter car means a savings in fuel costs. Products using polyurethane foam have a longer life, but the extreme durability of the foam doesn’t end with the product. This is the point at which many would point out the polyurethane cannot be broken down in the environment and turned into an organic material. That is true, but turn that around. If the foam is THAT hard-wearing, it is more useful. It can be repurposed many more times than a lot of supposedly ‘natural’ substances.
So, the truth is that the polyurethane foam around us won’t kill us and will decrease the demand on environmental factors. To live an environmentally aware and healthful existence, we must be willing to use technology with an open mind. Just because a particular material is made chemically, does not mean it will make you sick.