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Health Concerns

Spray polyurethane foam (SPF) is a highly-effective and widely used insulation and air sealant material. However, exposures to its 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.

Individuals with a history of skin conditions, respiratory allergies, asthma, or prior isocyanate sensitization should carefully review product information when considering the use of SPF products and may want to consider safer alternatives. Manufacturers recommend in their isocyanate safety data sheets that individuals undergo medical surveillance prior to working with these materials and individuals with a history of medical conditions as described above will be restricted from work with isocyanates.

Health Concerns Associated with Side A: Isocyanates
Isocyanates are a class of highly reactive chemicals with widespread industrial, commercial, and retail or consumer applications.

Exposure to isocyanates may cause skin, eye and lung irritation, asthma, and “sensitization.” There is no recognized safe level of exposure to isocyanates for sensitized individuals. Isocyanates have been reported to be the leading attributable chemical cause of work-related asthma. Both dermal and respiratory exposures can trigger adverse health responses.

EPA, other federal agencies, states, industry, and other countries have taken a variety of actions to address risks posed by exposure to isocyanates.

Exposures to isocyanates should be minimized.  The following were noted in the NIOSH Alert, Preventing Asthma and Death from MDI Exposure during Truck Bed Liner and Related Applications.

  • Isocyanates have been reported to be the leading attributable chemical cause of work-related asthma, a potentially life-threatening disease.
  • Exposure to isocyanates can cause contact dermatitis, skin and respiratory tract irritation, sensitization, and asthma.
  • Both skin and inhalation exposures can lead to respiratory responses.
  • Isocyanates can cause “sensitization,” which means that some people may become allergic to isocyanates and could experience allergic reactions including: itching and watery eyes, skin rashes, asthma, and other breathing difficulties. Symptoms may also be delayed up to several hours after exposure. If you are allergic or become sensitized, even low concentrations of isocyanates can trigger a severe asthma attack or other lung effects, or a potentially fatal reaction. There is no recognized safe level of exposure to isocyanates for sensitized individuals.
  • Some workers who become sensitized to isocyanates are subject to severe asthma attacks if they are exposed again. Death from severe asthma in some sensitized persons has been reported. NIOSH issued an earlier Alert in 1996, “Preventing Asthma and Death from Diisocyanate Exposure."
  • Sensitization may result from either a single exposure to a relatively high concentration or repeated exposures to lower concentrations over time; this is an area where additional research is needed.
  • Even if you do not become sensitized to isocyanates, they may still irritate your skin and lungs, and many years of exposure can lead to permanent lung damage and respiratory problems.
  • All skin contact should be avoided since contact with skin may lead to respiratory sensitization or cause other allergic reactions. Appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) should be used during all activities that may present exposure to any isocyanate compounds to avoid sensitization.

Health Concerns Associated with Side B: Polyol Blend
Side B contains a blend of proprietary chemicals that provide unique properties in the foam, and may vary widely from manufacturer to manufacturer. Â 

  • Catalysts may be amine or metal catalysts
  • Amine catalysts in SPF may be sensitizers and irritants that can cause blurry vision (halo effect)
  • Flame retardants, such as halogenated compounds, may be persistent, bioaccumulative, and/or toxic chemicals (PBTs). Some examples include:
        • TCPP -(Tris(2-chloroisopropyl)phosphate)
        • TEP -(Triethyl phosphate)
        • TDCP -(Tris (1,3-dichloroisopropyl) phosphate blend)
  • Blowing agents may have adverse health effects
  • Some surfactants may be linked to endocrine disruption

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Consumer Complaints

If home or building occupants have concerns that they may be exposed to residual SPF chemicals, potential off-gassing, or continue to smell odors, they should contact their contractor to ensure proper procedures and clean-up were followed. If their concerns are not resolved, affected parties should contact their local or state consumer protection office or contractors’ licensing board. Consumers can also file an online Consumer Product Incident Report with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission on the SaferProducts.gov website.

Be Aware of Potentially Misleading Marketing Claims

Some advertising claims for SPF do not clearly indicate that these products contain hazardous chemicals. Marketing claims that ignore the presence of isocyanates and other toxic chemicals in SPF insulation mask the need for safe work practices. Read more about chemicals in SPF products. Misleading marketing information can result in spray foam applicators and home and building owners not understanding the need for adequate personal protective equipment and other precautions, such as ventilation, during and after installation. Read more about steps to control exposure at every stage of SPF installation.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, commonly known as the "Green Guides," to help marketers avoid making environmental claims that are unfair or deceptive under Section 5 of the FTC Act. Also relevant are sections 6 and 9. For consumers, the FTC has issued two brochures, “Sorting out ‘Green’ Advertising Claims” and “Eco-Speak: A User’s Guide to the Language of Recycling.” For businesses, the FTC has issued a brochure, “Complying With the Environmental Marketing Guides."

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