I have developed asthma from the fiberglass insulation in our home. How can I find insulation that won’t make me sick?
—Cynthia Bacon, Orlando, FL
Fiberglass, a common home insulator that grew popular after the dangers of asbestos became more widely known, is itself now associated with a range of health issues. Microscopic slivers of fiberglass can break loose during handling and be inhaled, irritating the lining of the respiratory tract and becoming lodged in lung tissue. This can cause a fibrous buildup that reduces lung capacity, or cause DNA mutations that can lead to lung cancer. In fact, cancer warnings appear on all fiberglass insulation sold in the United States.
Although wearing a respirator or dust mask can prevent inhalation of fibers during installation, all three principal U.S. manufacturers of fiberglass insulation now seal their batts in a perforated polyethylene or polypropylene sheeting so as to prevent airborne exposure. Nevertheless, for those suffering from aggravated respiratory problems, replacing fiberglass insulation with a more environmentally friendly alternative may be the best option. Luckily there are many such options available.
A favorite of environmental advocates is cellulose, which is made from recycled, shredded newspaper. In his book, The Solar House, author Dan Chiras calls cellulose “one of the most environmentally friendly insulation choices.” It is also highly efficient, readily available and economically priced, he says, and thus competes well with fiberglass.
Chiras also recommends cotton insulation, calling it “a natural product and safe from a human health standpoint,” while acknowledging that it is twice the price of fiberglass and “one of the most chemically intensive crops grown in the United States.” It contains no formaldehyde binders, however, a health and environmental plus, and usually contains a fire retardant, an important safety consideration.
Radiant barriers are another option, says the Fiberglass Information Network. Ideal for hot climates, they are made from metal foil and either Kraft paper or bubble wrap. The Network also recommends insulation batts made from recycled #1 plastic, known as PET, the same material used to make some soda bottles and carpeting. Made by RTICA, based in Stony Creek, Ontario, the batts are installed just like fiberglass and make for an excellent fiberglass replacement choice.
But before ripping out that old fiberglass, it may be worth getting a professional to evaluate the integrity of your home”s ductwork. With properly sealed ducts, any stray fiberglass slivers inside your walls should not be able to get out. In the case of duct contamination, your best bet is to replace the entire system. Duct cleaning is also an option, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not recommend it. If you do decide to opt for cleaning, the National Air Duct Cleaners Association offers a list of companies that can do the work.