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UFFI foam insulation in an old house © Daniel FriedmanHow to Identify UFFI - Urea Formaldehyde Building Insulation
Was UFFI a source of hazardous formaldehyde outgassing?

  • UREA FORMALDEHYDE FOAM INSULATION, UFFI - CONTENTS: How to recognize UFFI Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation, where to look for it. What Was the Urea Formaldehyde Insulation Worry. Should You Avoid Buying a UFFI Insulated Building? How to Identify UFFI or Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation in buildings
  • POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs about how to recognize UFFI Urea Formaldehyde Insulation in buildings and its effects on the property
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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.



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UFFI Insulation - What Was the Urea Formaldehyde Insulation Worry

UFFI, Cellulose, and Fiberglass Insulation Retrofit © Daniel Friedman

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.

Article Series Contents:

UFFI In Buildings: A Summary of What You Need to Know

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.

UFFI foam insulation retrofit (C) D Friedman

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.

Should You Avoid Buying a UFFI-Insulated Building? Conflicting answers from the U.S. CPSC

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:

  1. Do not buy the home under any circumstances. The cost to remove the UFFI and clean the wall cavities will be greater than the value of the home.
  2. Buy the home but remove the UFFI insulation. The remaining scraps in the wall cavities will be insignificant as a formaldehyde source.
  3. Buy the home and don't do anything about the insulation: the health hazards have been exaggerated and are probably very low if any.

    Today, in 2008, we add an updated opinion:
  4. Don't refuse to buy a home because of the presence of UFFI in its walls or ceilings;
    • purchase some test kits and actually measure the formaldehyde level;
    • realize that the foam is open-celled and that all of the formaldehyde will leave the building;
    • if the insulation was added more than five years ago there is almost no chance that you will detect any formaldehyde from the insulation;
    • any remaining formaldehyde problems will probably be from other sources such as carpet padding or some composition wood-product building materials like chipboard shelving.
    • examine the insulation in wall cavities to see if UFFI shrinkage has left so many gaps that you need to improve the building insulation. Shrinkage of the insulation product produces openings which may permit significant air leakage or simply thermal bypass leaks, reducing the effectiveness of the insulation system - a problem referred to in the industry as thermal drift.
    • Realize that a few future buyers may have an irrational fear of the UFFI - a condition that might have a (probably small) impact on property resale - see Enviro-Scare, the Cycle of Public Fear

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.

To consider other formaldehyde off gassing sources in buildings see FORMALDEHYDE HAZARDS - home and also see FORMALDEHYDE in LAMINATE FLOORING

Identify UFFI or Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation in buildings

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.

UFFI Insulation in a building attic © Daniel Friedman  

How to Find & Identify UFFI Insulation in an Older Home by Visual Indoor Inspections: Insulation Retrofit Projects

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.

 

How to Spot UFFI Building Insulation in an Older Home by Visual Outdoor Inspections: Insulation Retrofit Through Siding

This discussion has been moved to UFFI, EXTERIOR INSTALLATION SIGNS

Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation UFFI Shrinkage and Air Leaks

Please see UFFI SHRINKAGE, THERMAL BYPASS LEAKS

Calculating the Heat Loss Due to UFFI Insulation Shrinkage

See UFFI SHRINKAGE LEAK IMPACT CALCULATION

Should UFFI Insulation Affect the Sale Price of a Home?

We have moved this discussion to UFFI INSULATION IMPACT ON HOME SALE PRICE

UFFI Urea Formaldehyde Insulation Class Action Lawsuit

This discussion is now found at UFFI CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT, CANADA

Current Health Canada Statement on UFFI

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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Continue reading at UFFI, HOW TO IDENTIFY in BUILDINGS or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.

Or see URETHANE FOAM Deterioration, Outgassing

Or see FORMALDEHYDE GAS HAZARD REDUCTION for other measures to reduce indoor formaldehyde levels

Or see INSULATION INSPECTION & IMPROVEMENT - home - or see INSULATION IDENTIFICATION GUIDE - home

Or see INSULATION LOCATION - WHERE TO PUT IT - home

Suggested citation for this web page

UREA FORMALDEHYDE FOAM INSULATION, UFFI - home, at InspectApedia.com - online encyclopedia of building & environmental inspection, testing, diagnosis, repair, & problem prevention advice.

INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES: ARTICLE INDEX to BUILDING INSULATION

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