If you stay out of your home during and after spray foam installation, and if the spray foam has “cured” properly, then spray polyurethane foam insulation (SPF) is generally considered to be safe.
However, some of the chemicals used to make spray foam installation are known to be hazardous to human health, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Spray foam installers must wear protective gear while spraying. And residents are asked to leave the premises for at least 24 hours during and after spray foam installation.
Spray polyurethane foam insulation is manufactured in your home, and not in a factory. Two liquid chemicals - called Side A and Side B - are combined together and mixed on site during installation.
Side A consists mostly of highly reactive chemicals called isocyanates. Exposure to isocyanates is known to cause severe breathing and skin problems. These chemicals are reported to be a leading cause of work-related asthma, and in severe cases, fatal reactions have occurred, according to the EPA.
For decades now, there have been protocols to protect people working with isocyanates in occupational settings. Jobs that involve exposure to isocyanates include the manufacture of products such as mattresses, car seats, protective coatings for truck beds, boats, furniture, and packaging material, as well as spray-on polyurethane manufacturing.
In recent years spray foam has become a popular insulation choice for homeowners.
While there are federal Canadian standards for spray foam, this directive is not policed or enforced. Some insulation companies do not make this rule clear in their contracts or brochures.
According to the EPA, “homeowners who are exposed to isocyanates and other spray foam chemicals in vapors, aerosols, and dust during or after the installation process "run the risk of developing asthma, sensitization, lung damage, other respiratory and breathing problems, and skin and eye irritation."
Bottom Line: Stay out of the home during, and for at least 24 hours after, the installation.
What about the “Bad” Foam and odours?
If spray foam is installed and cured properly, it should not emit fumes or odours. Improperly installed foam can crack or break, or it may continue to emit offensive odours, including “fishy” odours.
There is continuing discussion and research about the chemicals in the B-side compound of spray polyurethane foam. “Fishy” or chemical odours are thought to be the result of chemicals in the B-side; less is known about these chemicals, though it is believed they are formed from reactions in the B-side compound in improperly cured foam,according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
The CPSC has received complaints from some U.S. homeowners after spray foam installation. These complaints range from lingering odours in the home, asthma, coughing, and other respiratory-related complaints, eye/throat irritations and headaches.
The U.S.-based National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is currently researching the non-isocyanate-based effects of spray polyurethane foam, and is asking for help from spray foam installers and contractors.
The Canadian Urethane Foam Contractors Association (CUFCA) says improperly installed foam is a rare occurrence. CUFCA says it receives only a handful of complaints from consumers a year.
Unlike the US, we have Canadian standards around both the product and installation of spray foam installation (CAN/ULC S705.1 and CAN/ULC S705.2); however there are no guarantees that it will always work our perfectly. Even the best installers sometimes have a bad foam job that will need to be removed.
TIPS for homeowners
- Look at your insulation options, and choose the insulation that best suits your needs. The EPA suggests that individuals with a history of skin conditions, respiratory allergies, asthma, or prior isocyanate sensitization should carefully review product information when considering the use of Spray Polyurethane Foam products and may want to consider alternatives.
- Carefully research review sites for independent opinions of contractors
- Beware of cheap spray foam quotes– spray foam is tricky and expensive to apply
- If you do choose Spray Foam, make sure to stay out of your home for least 24 hours after installation
- Canada has established standards for both the product (CAN/ULC s705.1) and the installation (CAN/ULC 2705.2) of spray foam; make sure your product has CCMC certification and check photo ID that your Installer is Certified and Licensed.
- Ask Installer about their policies regarding improperly installed foam, and ensure they have liability insurance that covers Errors and Omissions Coverage of their workmanship.
- Demand a guarantee in writing, in case something goes wrong.
- If you do believe your spray foam has been improperly installed, negotiate directly with your installer or contractor to remove the bad foam; if this doesn’t work, ask to have the contractor’s Quality Assurance Program investigate.
- The Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] on Spray Polyurethane Foam
- FAQs on Spray Foam from the Canadian Urethane Foam Contractors Association (CUFCA)
The Canadian Urethane Foam Contractors Association (CUFCA) has a list of licensed Certified Contractors, and also offer a third party warranty with their Field Quality Assurance Program that claims to ensure correction of any contractor deficiencies.