Urea formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) was developed in Europe during the 1950s. It is a low density foam that is pumped into wall cavities. It is made of a mixture of urea and formaldehyde resin, compressed air and a foaming agent. It looks and feels like shaving cream until it hardens and can be white, cream or blue in colour.
It was approved for use in Canada in 1977 by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Soon after, the Canadian government offered cash incentives to homeowners to insulate their homes with UFFI. This new insulation was affordable and was excellent for reaching hard-to-reach areas. By 1980, approximately 100,000 homes were insulated with UFFI in Canada.
Homes built after 1980 do not contain UFFI. If the home was built before then, injection holes on the outside of the home may indicate the presence of UFFI. If the home has been resurfaced, the holes may not be visible. Another place to look for UFFI is in the basement. Often the dried foam oozes through the space where the floor joists meet the outside wall. Checking behind outlets and switches is also a reliable place to find evidence of UFFI.
Where’s the Danger?
When UFFI is injected into the envelope of a building it is moist and gives off an excess of formaldehyde gas which is necessary to ensure proper curing. Formaldehyde gas is harmless in small doses. It is found in plywood, carpet, tobacco smoke, and furnace and car exhaust. Over-exposure to formaldehyde gas during the curing period can cause eye irritation, respiratory problems, nausea and headaches. When properly installed UFFI poses no health threat.
UFFI panic leads to Ban in 1980
In 1979, Health and Welfare Canada set the residential exposure guideline for formaldehyde gas at 0.10 parts per million. Due to a rash of complaints and concerns about health issues, UFFI was banned under the Hazardous Products Act in 1980.
A government removal assistance program for homeowners with UFFI was introduced in 1981 and ran until September of 1986. By 1983, the government had spent almost $300 million in the subsidized removal of UFFI.
The truth about UFFI
In the following years, numerous studies revealed that there was no clear evidence that UFFI was the cause of high rates of formaldehyde gas in homes. A national study found an average level of formaldehyde gas to be 0.054 ppm in homes with UFFI. Homes without UFFI had an average level of 0.036 ppm, demonstrating that both were well below the 0.1 health standard. Increased ventilation such as opening a window once a day can reduce the effects of formaldehyde gas. Some houseplants such as spider plants can also improve the air quality in homes with UFFI. Health experts suggest that there are many irritants in the ordinary household that can cause symptoms similar to formaldehyde exposure. Humidity, mold, various airborne chemicals, and a tightly sealed house are a few culprits. So far, there is no medical evidence specifically linking UFFI to a health complaint.
The Stigma Remains
Since 1993, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation has not required a UFFI declaration for mortgage loan insurance. Though many insurance companies do not prejudice against the presence of UFFI, they may require that testing be done to measure formaldehyde levels. The decision to insure or not is based on the merits of each home. An appraisal and proper testing ensures a fair assessment.
The Ontario Real Estate Association does not foresee removal of the declaration from its Agreement of Purchase and Sale. The negative stigma that remains on homes that have UFFI affects the market value of the home and in the past, failure to disclose the presence of UFFI has resulted in costly law suits. Though the National Housing Act no longer requires a UFFI declaration for mortgage insurance, it may be requested as part of a real estate listing or an agreement of purchase and sale.
Does it have to be removed?
UFFI should be removed if it shows signs of water deterioration, or if fungus is apparent. Moisture is usually the cause of both of these problems.
Moisture can cause UFFI to break down. The urea and formaldehyde resins lose their bond and the material begins to deteriorate making it a less effective insulator. This generally happens over an extended period of time and can take up to 20 years before removal is required. Moisture buildup between walls creates a breeding ground for fungus. Spores in the air affect the air quality in the home and can create an unhealthy environment that can cause symptoms similar to formaldehyde exposure. Problems such as asthma, allergies and other respiratory ailments can be compounded if there is a fungus problem. By sealing the walls that contain the insulation and by increasing ventilation to control the humidity in a home, fungus problems can be avoided.
Many Heat Recovery Ventilators (HRV’s) were installed in homes where UFFI was removed to assist in the dilution of the formaldehyde gases left behind. They provided mechanically-introduced fresh air to the home while continuously removing the indoor air with the contaminants. Although the HRV was not developed specifically for this purpose, it did prove to be effective.
The Cost of Removal
The removal of UFFI is time consuming and expensive. It involves tearing out a house’s interior or exterior walls. This process can cost up to $50,000. Though many homeowners lost thousands in the sale of their homes because of the UFFI panic, there is no evidence that UFFI should be removed if it has been installed properly and has not incurred moisture damage.