CBC MARKETPLACE: YOUR HOME »
UFFI still having an impact on
real estate market
Broadcast: February 22, 2002
If you've ever bought or sold a home, you should
have heard of UFFI -- urea formaldehyde foam insulation.
Marketplace did several groundbreaking reports
on it 20 years ago. It was banned by the federal government
in 1980 amid an uproar that it caused everything from runny
noses to cancer. It is still banned. But it was put into
an estimated 280,000 houses. And it's almost impossible to
We have found that UFFI still has a major
impact in the real estate market. But it is not just buyer
beware. It is seller beware too. You can even end up in
Kevin Lauscher and his wife bought their Saskatoon home,
they had no idea it would become the centre of a bitter legal
battle. The vendors sold them the home with a warranty that
it didn't contain UFFI. But it did.
were doing renovations to put in a window, and that's when
we revealed the UFFI in the walls," he says. "We were lost
and angry ... we hadn't been told the truth."
When the Lauschers found out, they sued. They've since
moved, but Marketplace took Kevin back to the scene.
The Berryeres, the couple who sold the house, didn't want
to appear on camera. But they agreed their lawyer Greg Heinrichs
they were sued, they were amazed. They couldn't believe what
was happening to them. Did they know it had UFFI? They didn't
know the UFFI was there. It came as a complete surprise to
them," says Heinrichs.
Plugs on the side of the house were a tell-tale sign that
UFFI had been installed. The sellers say they didn't know
what the plugs meant.
The plugs are a legacy of one of the worst health scares
the 1980s, the government banned UFFI. Earlier, it had given
people grants to install UFFI insulation, as part of a drive
to save energy. Injected into the wall cavity, the product
would then harden.
Then the bubble burst.
People in UFFI homes reported health problems, from persistent
coughs and headaches to serious respiratory illness. Now, they
frantically had it removed from the walls and in many cases
found the insulation had disintegrated.
main danger appeared to be formaldehyde gas, seeping from
the foam as it dried. Sometimes, it didn't dry properly and
When Kevin Lauscher and his family moved into their new
home, they experienced headaches and nosebleeds.
"Doctors can't say it was UFFI, but it gradually got worse
and when we moved out, it disappeared," he says.
But a scientific debate still rages about whether UFFI
was the cause of these health problems.
Epidemiologist and UFFI homeowner Dr. Geoff Norman investigated
the issues. He says early research exaggerated the dangers.
got an unwitting bad rap, not through anybody's deliberate
intentions, but through a bit of sloppy science, through
a bit of sloppy reporting and through sloppy politics," Norman
Dr. Albert Nantel was a key scientist on the research that
led to the UFFI ban.
"I had cases of 4,500 families examined by physicians in
Quebec," he says.
As director of the toxicology centre at Laval University
Hospital, he is still a leading authority.
some houses you could see the mould coming through the walls," says
He says in houses where it was properly installed, UFFI
stops giving off gas after a few years. It's probably safe
for most people.
"But in other houses when you open the walls, you see the
disintegration. So it's not right to put (the issue) under
the carpet, not because it's a general problem, but because
people have a right to know. To check," says Nantel.
all the scientific debate, one important question remains.
Should UFFI installations be disclosed in real estate deals?
In Quebec, and Saskatchewan, disclosure of UFFI is voluntary
when you put your house on the market. In other provinces,
you must tell potential buyers whether or not there's UFFI
in the home. Or state you don't know.
In the Saskatoon case, at the time, disclosure was mandatory.
The sellers signed a warranty guaranteeing there was no UFFI.
went in with their eyes closed and that's always a bad idea," says
their lawyer, Greg Heinrichs.
The Lauschers wound up going to court for damages. Not
over health problems. The connection couldn't be proven.
At first they wanted payment for removing UFFI and loss
of property value. The Lauschers also sued the sellers' and
their own real estate agents.
jury awarded them compensation for the effect UFFI had on
property value plus costs. They won almost $65,000
The jury also decided the vendors and the real estate agents
had been negligent. And taking into account what the Lauschers
had been through, they awarded another $250,000 in punitive
The jury sent a clear message. In this case, UFFI was a
"The punitive damages were the most shocking, frightening
thing that ever happened to them in their lives," says Heinrichs.
The vendors say lawyer’s fees
and other costs already bankrupted them. So the real estate
agents had to pay the $65,000 compensation. They declined
to be interviewed.
The real estate agents were supposed
to check the facts on the contract. The jury also stated
that both buyer and vendor were partly responsible for
their own problems.
But this isn't the end of the story. The fight is going back
to court. A new trial was ordered when the judge said the punitive
damages were excessive.
case is important because tens of thousands of Canadian homes
may trigger a similar lawsuit. No one knows how many homes
installed with UFFI haven't had it removed.
The moral of this story? If you don't want to end up in court,
you can do one of two things. Disclose you have UFFI in your
home. Or have a professional inspect your house to make sure
there's no UFFI. Ignorance is not bliss. Protect yourself by
knowing what may lurk in your home.
to tell if you have UFFI in your home »