New EPA Study Confirms Health Dangers of Formaldehyde; Pharos Reviews Formaldehyde-Free Insulations

Tom Lent - June 3, 2010

Leukemia and other cancers of the lymph nodes, blood, bone marrow and spleen… neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, developmental toxicity and immunotoxicity… respiratory tract pathology, asthma, and increased allergic sensitization.  A major EPA review of the science on formaldehyde, released in draft form this week,* affirms that the science is conclusive that formaldehyde is linked to all of these health effects in humans. This report further legitimizes longstanding concerns about formaldehyde within the building industry.

The good news is that it is getting easier to avoid formaldehyde in products such as composite wood and batt insulation.  Manufacturers are responding to the growing awareness that formaldehyde-based binders can release hazardous quantities of carcinogenic formaldehyde into occupied spaces– even through drywall.  For example, the Pharos database now lists five batt insulation products claiming no formaldehyde in their binders.  Three of them are fiberglass-based, one uses plastic fibers and one uses cotton fibers.  

Are the alternatives less hazardous? None of the batt insulation manufacturers have been particularly forthcoming about the chemical content of their alternative binders. Through patent research, however, the Pharos team has been able to learn enough about the formulas to evaluate some of them and determine that several of the alternatives are less hazardous.

A few of the Johns Manville products use an Aquaset binder from Rohm & Hass, which achieved the best VOC and User Toxicity scores in Pharos, with SCS Indoor Advantage Plus Formaldehyde Free certification confirming their low-VOC emissions and formaldehyde-free claims.  Pharos patent research confirmed that none of the chemicals in the Aquaset binder raise as high a level of concern as formaldehyde – all of them receive orange or lower flags in the Pharos Chemical and Material Library.

The Knauf EcoBatt products use the Ecose binder, for which we only found orange flagged or better chemicals in the patents. They are, however, reportedly making the insulation on the same machines as their other formaldehyde-based products and so Knauf acknowledges that Ecose products may have trace amounts of urea phenol formaldehyde binder. This should result in far less formaldehyde releases than a UPF-bound product, but it means the products can’t pass the Pharos formaldehyde-free filter until they complete the transition. Not only is the binder formaldehyde-free, but it is also partially plant-based, However, since the binder makes up 17% or less of the overall product content and the plant component is only 20% of the binder, the total bio-based content (about 3%) is too small to affect renewable material scoring.

The third fully characterized and scored product is Dow’s SafeTouch product.  Dow replaced the itchy fiberglass with a non-itch PET fiber – good news for anyone who has handled fiberglass. However, with no VOC certifications and Pharos patent research revealing two red-flagged carcinogenic chemicals in the binder, this product scores very poorly in Pharos’ VOC, User Toxicity and Manufacturer and Community Toxicity categories.  Also disappointing is the lack of any recycled content.  Given the high amount of PET bottles being recycled these days, Dow appears to be ignoring a good opportunity for high recycled content.[Note: this product has been discontinued since this blog was published]

The final fiberglass product that is advertised as formaldehyde-free is CertainTeed’s Sustainable Insulation line. Certified for low-VOC emissions to Greenguard Children & Schools, and with higher post-consumer recycled glass content pushing its renewable material score above the other fiberglass products, this could be an appealing option. The Canadian version claims 65-70% post consumer glass - more than any other fiberglass product. The manufacturer, however, has not revealed any substantive information about the binder, claiming only that it is “similar to sugar.” Pharos has not yet found a patent corresponding to the product registered in the U.S.  Since we have yet to learn the contents of the alternative plant-based binder, the User Toxicity score is low and the product won’t yet make it through the Pharos formaldehyde-free filter.  (No product can pass a Pharos chemical filter unless the manufacturer has fully disclosed the product’s contents or we have found them through patent research.)  Encourage your CertainTeed sales reps to disclose the contents of this product in Pharos to get fully rated.

Bonded Logic’s entrant in the formaldehyde-free race is Ultra Touch, a cotton batt with a polyolefin binder using recycled material from the clothing industry. The renewable material score is only half what it could be due to their use of post-industrial rather than post-consumer material content (send your old jeans to Ultra Touch!), but still places near the top of the batt insulations for use of renewable material. Unfortunately, while this product has been tested for low VOC emissions, Bonded Logic has not yet disclosed any details of their polyolefin binder, lowering Ultra Touch’s User Toxicity score. While we have no reason to question the formaldehyde-free claim, the product also won’t show up in the formaldehyde-free filter until the company discloses the chemicals they use in the binder.

Cotton is not the only bio-based solution making it into the market. We are currently evaluating several insulation products made from sheep’s wool. They appear not to use any binder at all, but may require fumigants to avoid moth infestations. Watch Pharos for more information about these products in the future.

In an increasing number of product categories, like batt insulation, innovative manufacturers are developing products that avoid the concerns raised in the new EPA report on formaldehyde and we can send a message to accelerate this change through careful product selection. As we have seen with batt insulation, however, finding out what is inside is challenging. When we do learn what’s inside we discover that some of the alternatives represent real improvements with lower toxicity while others continue the use of red flagged hazardous chemicals. Pharos users should insist that all of these manufacturers be more transparent and forthcoming about the chemicals used to make their alternative binders and reward those that are formulating with less hazardous chemicals.


* The US Environmental Protection Agency released its “Draft Toxicological Review of Formaldehyde in Support of Summary Information on the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS)” on June 2, 2010 for a public comment period ending August 31, 2010.  

Tom Lent is the Policy Director for the Healthy Building Network.