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UFFI recognition & identification in buildings: this article illustrates and describes UFFI - urea formaldehyde foam building insulation and describes where it is found, when it was used in buildings, how to look for it, how to distinguish this from other building foam insulation products, and its health effects.
We include identification photographs and a description of a very simple field test that can immediately distinguish between 1970's vintage sprayed or pumped UFFI insulation and more contemporary icynene or polyurethane spray foam insulation jobs.
The fun photo above shows an insulation retrofit series of projects. In the center of the photo we see pink fiberglass insulating batts. Below the fiberglass insulation we see blown-in loose-fill cellulose insulation. And in the foreground (and under our © notice) we see a crumbly, cracked slab of UFFI foam insulation as well.
UFFI or Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation was an insulation retrofit product used in the 1970's. This expanding foam insulation was mixed on-site and then pumped into building wall or other cavities in older buildings which were not previously insulated.
For a time some consumers were concerned about a possible health hazard from formaldehyde outgassing that might have occurred during the curing phase of this insulating product in some installations, particularly if the UFFI was improperly mixed.
Our photo (below left) illustrates that even when there is no evidence of a UFFI retrofit from outside the building (wall plugs) nor inside the building (wall plugs in the occupied space or attic stair walls), a thorough inspection of rarely-entered (tight) attic or crawl space areas can discover UFFI that exuded into the space when it was pumped into the building walls.
The photograph shows UFFI as it was found in a small attic crawl area in a New York home during a 2008 inspection. We estimate that the home, built perhaps in the 1940's, had been insulated with UFFI in the 1970's. .
Early cancer research on UFFI: Some earlier research on the carcinogenic effect (cancer causing) of urea formaldehyde foam insulation suggested that formaldehyde out gassing from the insulation formed a significant cancer risk. Eventually, additional study suggested that the initial cancer risk from formaldehyde was not supported, at least in this application.
The level of formaldehyde that out gassed from UFFI depended in part on how the foam product was mixed at the site, and not all building insulation projects using this substance produced the same level of formaldehyde.
The level of outgassing formaldehyde from UFFI insulation declined steadily with age. This was an open-cell foam that did not retain its gases long term.
No formaldehyde outgassing found after the foam aged: More interesting was the observation that perhaps largely because this insulation formed an open-celled foam, even if there were high initial formaldehyde out gassing levels, after months or at most a few years, even careful measurements were unable to detect any levels of ongoing formaldehyde out gassing from this material.
Only people hypersensitive to chemicals such as sufferers of MCS (multiple chemical sensitivity) and some people with other respiratory illnesses seem to have any remaining reaction to this material, and even in that case a study of such reactions is complicated by the observation that higher levels of formaldehyde out gassing from building products occurs from some furniture padding and from some glues or finishes used in chipboard based cabinets or sub flooring.
Yet at the peak of the UFFI enviro-scare, and exacerbated by inconsistent advice offered by government and private health experts, some buildings were sold at a significant discount to allow for extensive gutting, cleaning, and re-insulating of building cavities.
The short answer is no, in our opinion, but there may be some insulating defects (such as shrinkage) and a modest resale impact to consider.
In sum: confusion among home owners and buyers who considered whether or not UFFI should be considered a problem in homes originated in a formaldehyde offgassing problem that occurred in some UFFI installations, principally due to improper ingredient mix, exacerbated by conflicting opinions offered to consumers by the U.S. CPSC.
In the 1970's we made three successive telephone calls to the US CPSC to inquire about the hazards of UFFI in a home we were evaluating. Because UFFI is an open-cell foam product, even if excessive formaldehyde was present early in the insulation's life, it off-gassed rapidly. It is highly unlikely that today you will detect formaldehyde offgassing from insulation retrofits performed in the 1970's and 80's. However there may be high indoor formaldehyde levels from other sources such as particle board or Chinese laminate flooring.
Today most experts agree that unless there are other related problems such as water leaks into the insulated cavities, UFFI in buildings is not a health hazard.
However back in the 1970's we received these four different answers from three different people answering the CPSC UFFI hotline on the same day:
Inspecting several such projects it was interesting to note that the one real defect of this insulation product was that depending on how it was mixed, it shrank after installation, leaving gaps of no actual insulation at the top and sides of wall cavities - it wasn't the perfect insulating seal that was promised, but it was not the carcinogen that was feared. The shrinkage problem with UFFI is discussed at UFFI SHRINKAGE, THERMAL BYPASS LEAKS.
Details about the possible impact of the presence of UFFI insulation in buildings on the sale price or time on market of a home or other building for sale are at UFFI INSULATION IMPACT ON HOME SALE PRICE.
This topic has moved to a separate article found at UFFI, HOW TO IDENTIFY in BUILDINGS
Our photo (below) shows the dark dusty skin on UFFI insulation where it oozed from a wall cavity opening into a crawl space in the attic over a building garage.
At UFFI, HOW TO SPOT A RETROFIT INSULATION JOB we give specific inspection methods useful in building interiors and exteriors that will help spot the types of insulation that may have been added to a building over its life.
This discussion has been moved to UFFI, EXTERIOR INSTALLATION SIGNS
Please see UFFI SHRINKAGE, THERMAL BYPASS LEAKS
We have moved this discussion to UFFI INSULATION IMPACT ON HOME SALE PRICE
This discussion is now found at UFFI CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT, CANADA
UFFI, which is foamed in place and used to insulate buildings, has been banned in Canada under the Hazardous Products Act (HPA) since December 1980. UFFI was banned due to the high levels of formaldehyde that were given off during the installation process, as well as the continued off-gassing of formaldehyde from poorly installed insulation. The amount of formaldehyde released by UFFI was highest when first installed and decreased over time.
As a result, UFFI installed before 1980 would have little effect on indoor formaldehyde levels today.
If UFFI gets wet, however, it could begin to break down and may release more formaldehyde. Wet or deteriorating UFFI should be removed by a specialist and the source of the moisture problem should be repaired. Some provinces require homeowners to declare if they have UFFI installed, and this issue is generally raised during the re-sale of older homes.
For more information on UFFI please see Health Canada's It's Your Health factsheet on Formaldehyde or the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) - Health Canada, "Formaldehyde in Indoor Air", Health Canada . Sante Canada, retrieved 29 March 2015, original source: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/pubs/air/formaldehyde/fact-info-eng.php
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Or see UREA FORMALDEHYDE FOAM INSULATION, UFFI FAQs - questions and answers posted originally at this page
Or see FORMALDEHYDE GAS HAZARD REDUCTION for other measures to reduce indoor formaldehyde levels
Or see INSULATION LOCATION - WHERE TO PUT IT - home
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Questions & answers about UFFI insulation were posted originally on this page are now found at UREA FORMALDEHYDE FOAM INSULATION, UFFI FAQs
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