Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation (UFFI) was and still is used as a retrofitted insulating material in walls and ceiling spaces. It was used during the late 1970s "energy crisis" to retroactively insulate balloon frame construction houses and other buildings to increase energy efficiency. In Canada, approximately 100,000 to 280,000 homes were insulated with UFFI, in many cases subsidized through the Canadian government's C.H.I.P. program. UFFI was also used commercial and industrial buildings. It can be found in common areas and walls of semi-detached homes, offices, apartment buildings, condominiums and other habitable spaces.
It was discovered in the late 1970s and early 1980s that this foam outgassed potentially toxic formaldehyde fumes which were linked to serious respiratory illness.
Use of UFFI as an insulator has been banned in Canada since the early 1980s. UFFI was banned in the United States in 1982 by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. This ban was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals a year later. Some US states still have a state ban. UFFI was never banned in Europe, where it was originally developed and has been in use since the 1950s.
Polymerization turned UFFI from a liquid into a solid. It was mixed from resin and foaming agents to produce a shaving cream-like foam. Formaldehyde was used as a binding agent. The foam was injected under pressure into residential and commercial buildings using pumps and hoses, where it hardened and filled the spaces to be insulated. In many cases 1/2" - 2" holes were drilled to allow the injection. In some homes plugs in siding, brickwork, etc. that were used to seal the home after UFFI installation give a telltale sign of the presence of UFFI.
In some cases the high pressure installation forced the UFFI into improper areas, including electrical outlets and switch plates, foundation blocks, duct work, soffits, around plumbing and under plumbing fixtures, and potentially almost any other semi-enclosed space.
Formaldehyde off-gassing from UFFI was the major health concern. In sufficient concentration, formaldehyde gas causes eye, nose, and throat irritation and for some people a severe allergic reaction or asthma attacks . Other health effects may include skin rash, fatigue, wheezing, nausea, headaches, insomnia, depression, diarrhea, and chest pains. It is suspected as a human carcinogen.
The severity of formaldehyde off-gassing is affected by relative humidity, exposure to the sun, and humidity inside the walls. Off-gassing diminishes to a negligible amount over a 5 to 10-year period after installation. As UFFI has not been installed in Canada since the early 1980s, the hazards associated with it are considered to be negligible today.
It was quite the problem in the 1980s, however. In 1982 a Final Report by Consumer and Corporate Affairs Canada found that UFFI homes had a formaldehyde level of 0.054 parts per million (ppm) compared to non-UFFI homes at 0.036 ppm, compared to outside air at a level of less than 0.01 ppm. A 1984 study be the American Environmental Protection Agency found levels in excess of 0.1 ppm in 10% of the UFFI homes studied. A level of 0.1 ppm is a common benchmark for excessive levels of residential formaldehyde concentrations. Acute health effects are very uncommon below that level.
However, in some cases the UFFI material did not dry properly, or improperly sealed the space. Homes with this problem developed mould and mildew problems, leading to other forms of respiratory illness. Even today UFFI that becomes damp can break down and lead to mould problems.
Some homes and commercial buildings have since had UFFI foam removed. This must be done by qualified contractors. This is a painstaking and expensive process. Often the UFFI foam has degenerated into a dry, brittle shell or even a dusty powder. In these cases the material is not only potentially toxic, it has also ceased to perform its original function, insulating the home.
In most cases removing UFFI amounts to tearing down and rebuilding the home's interior, and as such is cost-prohibitive.
In Canada, UFFI must be declared by prospective sellers of a house. This is required by law in all provinces an territories except Saskatchewan and Quebec. Similar laws exist in some US states, especially those closest to Canada, where the controversy over UFFI began. Many homes have UFFI hidden inside with no visible indication. Often the owners of the home are not even aware of its presence, having been sold it without due notice.
The market value of a residence with UFFI can be as little as 50% of its estimated market value, even today when the threat of formaldehyde gas exposure from old UFFI is extremely low.
Other domestic sources of formaldehyde
Formaldehyde occurs naturally in wood and fruit. Formaldehyde gas is present at low levels in most indoor environments due to its presence in many consumer products, including adhesives, paints, particle board, plywood, furniture, fabrics, and carpeting. In homes with significant amounts of new pressed wood products, levels can be greater than 0.3 ppm.
For anyone with IKEA products in their home, the preceding sentence may cause alarm. Fear not. In 1986, IKEA began following the world's strictest requirements for formaldehyde in wood based materials, the German E1-Norm. Finnish regulations, again the world's toughest standards, are applied to IKEA textiles.
What to do if you have UFFI in your home
As the UFFI crisis fades into history, Canadians have largely forgotten about it. However the requirement for disclosure when listing a home for sale continues, and depresses the value of affected homes.
Aluminum foil is an effective barrier to formaldehyde fumes, as the gas cannot penetrate it. If you have UFFI I suggest wearing tinfoil hats at all times. Removal of UFFI is an option, but as discussed it can be very costly and inconvenient.