EPA puts spray foam insulation under spotlight

A recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announcement about consumer use of spray foam insulation threatens to deflate the growing sales — and availability — of this popular product. In April, the EPA expressed its concerns about certain chemicals found in spray polyurethane foam, which is applied as a liquid and then expands to fill cavities or gaps. 

“There has been an increase in recent years in promoting the use of foams and sealants by do-it-yourself, energy-conscious homeowners, and many people may now be unknowingly exposed to risks from these chemicals,” said Steve Owens, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Protection, in an April 14 press release. Professionals who use these chemicals are regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), he explained. They must wear the proper protection and abide by set exposure limits. But in the case of consumer use pattern and exposure, “there is very limited information,” he noted.

The list of proposed EPA actions to address these concerns left little doubt about the agency’s resolve: It wants data from manufacturers on any past allegations of adverse effects, unpublished health and safety data from any and all industry sources, exposure-monitoring studies for consumer products, and a possible ban or restriction on consumer products containing “uncured” polyurethanes. 

In an interview with the EPA, spokesman Dale Kemery shed more light on the EPA’s concerns and answered a series of questions about what the new study entails. While spray foam insulation may have garnered the most attention, certain concrete sealants, adhesives and floor-finishing chemicals are also under scrutiny because they contain polyurethanes that further react and “cure” when they’re released in the atmosphere. Exposure to these compounds can cause severe skin and breathing allergic responses. These chemicals have also been documented to cause asthma and lung damage, according to the EPA.

Professionals who use spray foam insulation wear full body protection, solvent-resistant gloves and hooded ventilators, as per OSHA regulations. But DIYers have been able to buy spray foam canisters from contractor supply houses or rent the two pressurized tanks, tubing and spray nozzle from insulation distributors. Then they spend the weekend spraying their attics and crawl spaces, often without protective gear. 

Besides the pro channel-crossing by DIYers, there is also concern about what consumers can buy in a typical hardware store, the EPA said. “There is a growing availability of products that contained uncured [polyurethane] in retail and home