Urea formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) – What’s the Truth

Urea formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) has been used as an insulating material in North America since the mid-1960’s and in Europe for several decades.  It is estimated that 100,000 homes in Canada and 500,000 homes in the United States are insulated with Urea Formaldehyde insulation. This form of insulation was used extensively in Canada and the U.S. during that time, especially during the period from 1975 to 1978.  In Canada, the government offered financial incentives for its use and as  with most government programs was poorly supervised allowing shoddy workmanship from poorly trained installers.

Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation (UFFI) was installed primarily in wall cavities during the 1970’s as an energy conservation measure. Its appearance is like ordinary shaving cream. Dry, it can be a white or tan colour, and fluffy like styrofoam. To ascertain if UFFI is present in a home samples of insulation must be taken for lab analysis.. It is made by using a pump set and hose with a mixing gun to mix the foaming agent, resin and compressed air. The fully expanded foam is pumped into areas in need of insulation. It becomes firm within minutes but cures within a week. UFFI is generally spotted in homes built before the 1970s; one should look in basements, crawl spaces, attics, and unfinished attics. Visually it looks like oozing liquid that has been hardened. Over time, it tends to vary in shades of butterscotch but new UFFI is a light yellow color. Early forms of UFFI tended to shrink significantly. Modern UF insulation with updated catalysts and foaming technology have reduced shrinkage to minimal levels (between 2-4%). The foam dries with a dull matte color with no shine. When cured, it often has a dry and crumbly texture.

Formaldehyde is also widely used in building materials. It is especially used in glue, foam insulation and pressed wood products, such as, plywood, particle board, paneling, wood finishes and furniture. Many floor coverings, like carpeting, padding, and adhesives also contain formaldehyde. Other products include paper products, cosmetics, deodorants, shampoos, fabric dyes, inks, and air and carpet deodorizers.

The United States had the first problem case involving Urea Formaldehyde which was installed in a mobile home.  This mobile home was extremely air tight and the urea formaldehyde was apparently only half mixed and poorly installed.  Although there were no directly attributable problems to the insulation the Federal Government banned its use as a precautionary measure.  The fears of having a home with UFFI installed eventually created a loss in market value of the homes and the fear of cancer and other health problems coupled with the decrease in property value of homes insulated with UFFI, have given it a stigma from which it has never recovered.  The Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the sale of UFFI in the United States in 1982. Shortly thereafter, laws were enacted to further ban its use. However, in April of 1983, the U.S. Court of Appeals repealed the law, due to insubstantial evidence of UFFI contamination.

Claimants in a Quebec court case took the Federal Government, manufactures and others to court in a record setting case which lasted about eight years.  Unfortunately they could not find any homes where the formaldehyde gas levels exceeded the conservative amount of 0.1 parts per million.  The court found there was no basis for a settlement and the plaintiffs had to pay most of the court costs.

Urea Formaldehyde insulation is still used in Europe where it is considered one of the best retro-fit insulation products.  In 1983 the United States Court of Appeals repealed the law banning its use due to insubstantial evidence of UFFI contamination.