Spray foam insulation can make some homes unlivable

A CBC Marketplace investigation has found that the growing popularity of spray polyurethane foam insulation may be creating an emerging problem in Canada.

Touted as green option, spray foam insulation can lead to off-gassing and health problems

Spray foam insulation can go very wrong

10 years ago
Duration 2:28
Featured VideoThis 'green option' improperly installed, can lead to off-gassing and health problems that make homes uninhabitable

A CBC Marketplace investigation has found that for some homeowners, a “green” way to make their houses more energy efficient has left them out in the cold.

The growing popularity of spray polyurethane foam insulation may be creating an emerging problem in Canada. While the majority of spray foam installations occur without incident, problems can be costly and difficult to repair, and have led to a string of lawsuits in the U.S. as homeowners attempt to recover costs.

Watch Marketplace

To see how a Canadian family got caught up in a spray foam nightmare, and how you can protect yourself from disaster, watch Marketplace's episode, Renovation Horror Story, Friday at 8 p.m. (8:30 p.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador).

When installed incorrectly, spray foam insulation can result in a strong, unpleasant fishy smell from off-gassing that has driven some people from their homes, some complaining of difficulty breathing and other health problems. When contractors fail to address installation problems, homeowners can have little recourse.

“We thought we were doing something to improve our home and instead basically destroyed my home,” one homeowner tells Marketplace co-host Tom Harrington. “They ruined it. We can’t live in it anymore."

Spray foam insulation is applied with a hose that mixes two chemical compounds. Installing the material properly is a process that requires precise mixing, layering and temperature of the chemicals. If installed incorrectly, the material fails to properly cure and can crack, off-gas or cause other problems.

"It’s not simple,” says Alex Schuts, who has been in the insulation industry for more than 20 years. "You don’t just pick up the gun and start spraying."

Alex Schuts, who has been in the insulation industry for more than 20 years, says some green marketing claims about spray foam insulation can be “misleading.” (CBC)

"It can be kind of a game of Russian roulette,” says Bernie Bloom, a Maryland-based indoor air quality scientist and a specialist in spray foam problems. The full investigation, Renovation Horror Story, airs Friday at 8pm (8:30pm NT) on CBC Television.

Spray foam popularity boosted by reality shows, eco claims

The Canadian Urethane Foam Contractors Association (CUFCA) estimates that spray foam insulation is installed in between 300,000 and 400,000 Canadian homes every year, a number that has been growing by 30 to 40 per cent every year over the last decade.

Part of the product’s appeal is that, when properly installed, spray foam insulation can reduce heating and cooling costs by up to 50 per cent, according to CUFCA. The product has also received glowing endorsements on a variety of home renovation TV shows and from celebrity contractors such as Mike Holmes.

As consumer awareness has grown, some companies have aggressively marketed spray foam insulation as a green choice.

But some of those green claims may send consumers the wrong message, says Schuts, who works on home renovation shows including Holmes on Homes and Disaster DIY. He points to marketing that implies that the ingredients are natural and non-toxic, such as soy.

“It’s very misleading,” Schuts says. “The truth of it is there’s only a very small percentage of soy in the spray foams that are out there.” Schuts says that “soy-based” foams can contain less than two per cent soy.

Not all green claims are false, however, says Schuts. When installed correctly, spray foam can significantly increase the energy efficiency of a house. And unlike other kinds of insulation, which can settle, spray foam insulation lasts longer and resists deterioration.

However, the Marketplace investigation has discovered that some contractors may be emphasizing “green” claims while neglecting to provide customers with proper safety information, including telling people to stay out of the house during and after spraying. If this advice is not given or followed, exposure to the chemicals can cause serious health problems.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "exposures to [spray foam insulation (SPF)’s] key ingredient, isocyanates, and other SPF chemicals in vapors, aerosols, and dust during and after installation can cause asthma, sensitization, lung damage, other respiratory and breathing problems, and skin and eye irritation."

Industry protocols lacking

Despite the growing popularity of spray foam insulation, there are no industry standards for its removal. The Marketplace investigation discovered that when contractors fail to address problems, homeowners may have difficulty finding companies that are willing to help because of the lack of protocols for removing improperly installed spray foam insulation.

Bernie Bloom, an air quality scientist based in Maryland, says that spray foam insulation can be “a game of Russian roulette.” (CBC)

Finding another contractor who will come to remove the insulation can also cost thousands of dollars.

The product’s durability -- one of its advantages over other kinds of insulation -- can make it difficult to remove if it has been installed incorrectly. In some cases, including that of one family featured in the Marketplace investigation, homeowners ended up removing their roof and having the spray foam scraped out manually. However, this can raise additional concerns.

“If you try to hack the foam out mechanically, you make foam dust, and the foam dust travels,” Bloom says. “Air moves through the house, and you wind up with foam dust in house dust. “

In the U.S., problems with spray foam installation -- and contractors who are unwilling to fix problems -- have provoked some distraught homeowners to join class-action lawsuits, some of which are currently underway.

In Canada, a contractor must be trained, licensed and certified in order to install certain kinds of spray foam insulation. As the popularity of the insulation has increased, the number of licensed installers has also risen. Some courses require only a few days of training.

According to CUFCA, the association receives only a handful of complaints from consumers about installation problems, noting that it tries to assist consumers who have a problem with CUFCA-certified installers.

The association advises consumers to choose an installer carefully, and review the guarantees the contractor offers if installation problems do occur.