Foam framed

Ir­re­spon­si­ble jour­nal­ism misses key de­tails in bid to slag spray-foam in­su­la­tion

Winnipeg Free Press - Section F - - HOMES - DAVID SQUARE

THERE’S some­thing fishy about a cou­ple of re­cent sto­ries con­cern­ing off-gassing pur­port­edly caused by the in­stal­la­tion of polyurethane spray-foam in­su­la­tion (PSFI)—yes, the very in­su­la­tion lauded un­til re­cently as a green prod­uct used ex­ten­sively in the U.S. and Canada for more than four decades.

The EPA es­ti­mates that the num­ber of homes and build­ings in the U.S. that con­tain PSFI run into the mil­lions, with hun­dreds of thou­sands more be­ing added each year.

In Canada there are cur­rently well over 350,000 houses be­ing sprayed per year, with the num­bers grow­ing daily be­cause PSFI is con­sid­ered the best in­su­la­tion on the mar­ket, sav­ing mil­lions of dol­lars in en­ergy con­sump­tion ev­ery year, ac­cord­ing to a Winnipeg-based PSFI ex­pert who is a board mem­ber of the Cana­dian Ure­thane Foam Con­trac­tors As­so­ci­a­tion (CUFCA), an agency that sus­tains high in­dus­try stan­dards and en­cour­ages on­go­ing pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment.

In­ter­est­ingly chem­i­cal com­pounds that are a health risk to in­di­vid­u­als and the en­vi­ron­ment are open game for liti­gious Amer­i­cans, known for launch­ing class-ac­tion suits against the man­u­fac­tur­ers of sup­pos­edly un­healthy prod­ucts. It seems odd, there­fore, that two-score years af­ter PSFI was in­tro­duced to the North Amer­i­can build­ing in­dus­try, there have been no ma­jor law­suits reg­is­tered against the man­u­fac­tur­ers or in­stall­ers of the prod­uct.

It seems even more cu­ri­ous that me­dia sto­ries have re­cently sur­faced mak­ing claims that peo­ple are los­ing their health and homes to spray polyurethane foam and the chem­i­cals within: How can some­thing so toxic be con­sid­ered green?

True to form, such alarmist jour­nal­ism pro­vides no sci­en­tific data to back up its claims; in­stead, the writer re­lies on the tes­ti­mony of a hus­band and wife liv­ing in Texas who said they came down with res­pi­ra­tory symp­toms, sore throats, con­gested si­nuses and runny eyes af­ter PSFI was in­stalled in their home.

The only whiff of sci­en­tific ev­i­dence in the ar­ti­cle by www.tree­hug­ger.com is from the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency: “The po­ten­tial for off-gassing of volatile chem­i­cals from spray polyurethane foam is not fully un­der­stood and is an area where more re­search is needed.” In other words, there is no sub­stan­tive sci­en­tific data to link PSFI to home­own­ers’ health prob­lems.

In Canada, our na­tional broad­caster re­cently aired its own ver­sion of the PSFI saga Ren­o­va­tion Horror Story, aired just be­fore Hal­loween. The producers of Mar­ket­place lo­cated a cou­ple with two chil­dren in On­tario who had been forced out of their multi-thou­sand-square-foot home by fishy-smelling fumes, ap­par­ently em­a­nat­ing from re­cently in­stalled PSFI in the at­tic.

A cer­ti­fied in­door air spe­cial­ist was hired by Mar­ket­place to test the qual­ity of the air in the house. His find­ings: There was toluene, ben­zene and other chem­i­cals linked to can­cer present in a bed­room di­rectly un­der the area where the foam was ap­plied. (Linked to can­cer means an­i­mals ex­posed to two mil­lion times the usual level in ur­ban air off the chem­i­cals can die.) As well, a small amount of formalde­hyde was present in the foam it­self, sur­pris­ing be­cause formalde­hyde is not used to man­u­fac­ture PSFI. How­ever, the ubiq­ui­tous house sheath­ing OSB does use formalde­hyde as a bind­ing agent. (Some newer forms of OSB have elim­i­nated formalde­hyde.) How­ever, it’s quite pos­si­ble that the small amount of formalde­hyde de­tected was off-gassed by this com­mon prod­uct, not the PSFI.

The producers of Mar­ket­place trav­elled to Florida where yet another cou­ple with a sim­i­lar lin­ger­ing PSFI odour prob­lem was lo­cated. The cou­ple claimed their young son had be­come asth­matic two days af­ter the foam in­su­la­tion was sprayed in their home. Mar­ket­place also in­ter­viewed an air ex­pert who claimed there were many peo­ple in Florida pre­par­ing to launch a suit against PSFI in­stall­ers: the ex­act num­ber of lit­i­gants shown on a map of the state was six, with a few more sprin­kled through­out the Amer­i­can south.

“I wish the producers of Mar­ket­place had con­tacted me,” said Keith Bowie, owner of Eco­logic Spray Foam In­su­la­tion and a board mem­ber of CUFCA, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that tabled reg­u­la­tions for the in­stal­la­tion of spray foam for the Na­tional Build­ing Code of Canada.

“We had mem­bers of our or­ga­ni­za­tion in­spect the On­tario job and it was not a prob­lem with the foam it­self. We failed the job be­cause the ma­te­rial was im­prop­erly in­stalled by the com­pany.”

Bowie said CUFCA is a non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that at­tempts to po­lice the spray foam in­dus­try by en­list­ing com­pa­nies through­out Canada for a yearly $600 fee and a small sur­charge on the num­ber of kilo­grams sprayed.

“The dif­fi­culty is that there is no manda­tory leg­is­la­tion re­quir­ing PSFI in­stall­ers to join the or­ga­ni­za­tion,” said Bowie, adding that in Manitoba there were seven spray com­pa­nies about seven years ago; to­day there are 40, but only seven are CUFCA mem­bers.

CUFCA mem­bers are re­quired to have $2 mil­lion worth of con­struc­tion li­a­bil­ity, though most carry $5 mil­lion, as well as $50,000 li­a­bil­ity insurance and a three-year war­ranty. More­over, mem­bers must be re­cer­ti­fied ev­ery five years no mat­ter how many years ex­pe­ri­ence they have in the spray busi­ness.

“Show me another trade that re­quires its mem­bers to be re­cer­ti­fied af­ter its mem­bers have been li­cenced,” said Bowie.

CUFCA also pro­vided the Cana­dian Con­struc­tion Ma­te­rial Cen­tre (CCMC) with a colour­coded chart that iden­ti­fies the man­u­fac­tur­ers of the brands of foams sold in Canada, and was in­stru­men­tal in en­sur­ing ev­ery batch of chem­i­cal has a CCMC reg­is­tra­tion num­ber at­tached to it.

Bowie added that all foam used in Canada must be tested and ap­proved by the CCMC at a cost of up to $175,000. “If it fails, the man­u­fac­turer must write another cheque and re­peat the process un­til the foam passes.”

He said the CCMC per­forms about 100 eval­u­a­tions with most of them con­cerned with volatile or­ganic com­pounds (VOCs) re­leased when foam cures. “We’re very con­scious of prod­uct qual­ity, odour and fumes from VOCs,” he said.

As a fur­ther pre­cau­tion, CUFCA mem­bers are re­quired to sub­mit a re­port to an in­de­pen­dent au­di­tor con­cern­ing the con­di­tions at each job site be­fore spray­ing com­mences.

“If there is a prob­lem, that re­port is the first thing that investigators will look at,” said Bowie.

By com­par­i­son U.S. foams are re­quired to pass a flame test, but do not need a gov­ern­ment reg­is­tra­tion num­ber and tend to have stronger odours when sprayed.

“It’s pos­si­ble for a fly-by-night op­er­a­tion to pur­chase foam from, say, Wis­con­sin for $500 to $750 com­pared to $2,800 for a CCMC cer­ti­fied Cana­dian prod­uct. That’s quite an in­cen­tive for unscrupulous op­er­a­tors to buy U.S. foam and move it into Canada. That’s one of the rea­sons our foams are colour-coded. It lets Cana­dian con­sumers know ex­actly what kind and qual­ity of foam they are pur­chas­ing.”

Bowie said the Amer­i­cans are look­ing at the Cana­dian model in­sti­gated by CUFCA so they can gain some con­trol over their un­reg­u­lated in­dus­try.

Jake Zalud of Caneco Inc. Spray Foam In­su­la­tion in Winnipeg said he watched the Mar­ket­place video many times and came to the con­clu­sion that the foam ap­plied to the at­tic in the On­tario home was in­stalled with a sin­gle pass of a gun to a thick­ness of about four-inches.

“Two inches is the max­i­mum thick­ness that can be ap­plied at one time for the foam to cure prop­erly. When they cut away a full sec­tion of the ma­te­rial in the CBC video, I couldn’t see a di­vi­sion line which oc­curs be­tween coats when the prod­uct is prop­erly ap­plied,” he said.

Zalud said PSFI will not cure cor­rectly if sprayed in a four-inch thick mass be­cause this pre­vents proper off-gassing which should oc­cur within about 20 min­utes af­ter the prod­uct is ap­plied.

“I’ve been in the spray foam busi­ness for over seven years and I have never had a com­plaint from a client,” he said.

Sam Maen­del of Red River Spray On be­gan to learn about PSFI with his fa­ther in Mor­ris forty years ago. Since then, the fam­ily-owned and op­er­ated com­pany has in­su­lated thou­sands of homes.

“In that en­tire time, we’ve had one com­plaint from a cus­tomer. We re­moved and re­placed the foam at no cost. For­tu­nately, it was a small 200 square foot job. If it had been a large job it could have bankrupted our com­pany,” Maen­del said, adding that the CBC doc­u­men­tary was a wakeup call for the in­dus­try.

“We’re now in the process of tak­ing out insurance to cover the re­moval of foam if a job should go wrong,” he said, adding that all clients are be­ing told to get out of the house for 24 hours un­til the foam has com­pletely cured.

Maen­del spec­u­lated that the fishy smell as­so­ci­ated with the spray foam in the On­tario home likely came from the fire-re­tar­dant in­cluded in mod­ern PSFIs.

PSFI con­sists of Side A and a Side B com­pounds mixed to­gether at a one-to-one ra­tio un­der heat and pres­sure in­side the cham­ber of a gun. Side A con­tains iso­cyanates (some peo­ple can be nat­u­rally sen­si­tive to th­ese chem­i­cals) and Side B is com­prised of poly­ols (al­co­hols), fire re­tar­dants and amine cat­a­lysts that form a resin.

If the mix­ture goes off-ra­tio, the foam will re­main tacky, in­di­cat­ing the resin is too rich. The foam will be­come chalky or brit­tle if the iso­cyanates ex­ceed the amount of resin.

“In ei­ther case, a cer­ti­fied sprayer will im­me­di­ately know there is a prob­lem and will shut down the op­er­a­tion to find the cause of the prob­lem,” said Maen­del, adding there are a few pos­si­ble prob­lems: ei­ther the Side A or Side B drum is empty; a faulty pump has caused air pres­sure to fall off; a heat cable that lets the two chem­i­cals flow freely is not work­ing; or a fil­ter in the gun has be­come plugged.

“Prob­lems can oc­cur if the gun op­er­a­tor de­cides to keep on spray­ing de­spite th­ese warn­ing signs. For­tu­nately, to be el­i­gi­ble to pur­chase a CCM ap­proved foam in Canada all in­stall­ers must be cer­ti­fied,” said Maen­del.

Bowie added that “Con­trary to pop­u­lar opin­ion, PSFIs are more likely to pre­vent asthma than cause it be­cause the air-tight in­su­la­tion stops the in­fil­tra­tion of dust, pollen and other out­door or­ganic sub­stances that trig­ger the disease; the high R-value (6.0 per inch), mois­ture and air seal pro­vided by cured foam make it the best per­form­ing in­su­la­tion on the mar­ket.”

Caveat: If you de­cide to in­su­late your home with PSFI, do your home­work to find an in­staller with a good track record. Out­fits of­fer­ing the low­est price pos­si­ble are not usu­ally the most qual­i­fied in­stall­ers. Un­less you en­joy a fishys­mell in your home, stick to the com­pa­nies who use CCMC ap­proved prod­ucts.

Keith Bowie, owner of Eco­logic Spray Foam In­su­la­tion of Winnipeg, has about $250,000 in­vested in

his truck and the equip­ment re­quired to com­plete a gl­itch-free spray-foam job.

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