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Published on October 20th, 2008 | by Stephanie Evans


Green Insulation Leads to Safety and Savings

While it isn’t difficult to plan a green building from scratch, many eco-conscious individuals who have a desire to convert their
traditional homes to something more eco-friendly may face a few more
challenges.  Green remodeling requires the home remodeler to consider
many things before making the necessary changes.

The main concern is dealing with the potentially toxic materials that
are already inside the existing house.  If a homeowner is converting a
home that was constructed prior to 1980, chances are that asbestos and
other hazardous materials may be present…

Denim for Cotton Fiber Insulation

Asbestos was widely used for the first three-quarters of the twentieth
century and removing it properly is critical and usually involves the
services of a licensed abatement professional.  Asbestos exposure can lead to the deadly cancer known as mesothelioma.  Currently,
there are no mesothelioma treatments that constitute a cure.

Fortunately, once the asbestos insulation, flooring, ceiling tiles, or
other products of concern are removed, there are much better options
for their replacement.  Today’s eco-insulation products include:

  • Cotton Fiber—Recycled cotton fiber
    has become a very popular insulation material among green builders.  It
    consists of a batted material—often denim—that has been treated with
    the chemical borate to make it fire- and heat-retardant and to prevent
    it from developing mold.  The material does not off-gas and it is
    non-toxic, requiring no warning labels.  Manufacturers of cotton fiber
    insulation include Bonded Logic, which manufactures the popular UltraTouch brand.
  • Cellulose—Cellulose insulation is
    made from finely-shredded newsprint.  It contains 85 percent recycled
    content, similar to the numbers for cotton fiber insulation.  It is
    chemically treated with non-toxic substances to reduce mold and promote fire resistance and its
    use is said to reduce heating and air conditioning bills by up to 20
    percent annually.  Visit This Old House for a video and detailed instructions for How to Retrofit Cellulose Insulation.

    • GreenFiber,
      a manufacturer of eco-friendly building products such as cellulose
      insulation, reports that cellulose is used in approximately 15 percent
      of new green building construction.
    • The R value of cellulose improves during cold weather, according to a study conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
    • Many consumers have expressed concerns about reports of flammability during installation.  A majority of these reports involve unattended workspaces or older light fixtures, so thoroughly educate yourself or make sure you are working with a competent professional who is aware of these risks.  Cellulose insulation is treated with non-toxic fire retardents (borax and boric acid), and it meets the American Society for Testing Materials fire protection standards.
  • Spray Foam Insulation—This easy-to-install foam spray often garners a less-than-stellar reputation due to environementally-harmful constituents like polyurethane, which contains hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), implicated as a global warming contributor.
    Another constituent of concern in many spray foam products is the widely-used flame retardant PDBE, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers.  EPA studies suggest that PDBEs are toxic to some of the major bodily systems.  In response, a handful of states have banned products containing PDBEs.

    Some members of the spray foam insulation industry are turning things around with products that do not offgas or substantially impact health.  Look around for safer, more eco-friendly alternatives, such as:

    Water-based spray icynene
    is a foaming agent that uses a mixture of carbon dioxide and water.
    Icynene is said to produce a “tight” home that allows little space for mold or
    dust, making it very desirable for families with allergies.  Its only
    drawback is that icynene can only be installed by certified
    professionals, making it more costly than other forms of non-toxic
    insulation.  However, manufacturers claim it cuts energy costs by about
    35 percent annually.

    Icynene’s website asserts that the product is one of very few foam insulation sprays that does not contain PDBEs.  Like polyurethane sprays, it is foamed into wall cavities, but the resultant open-cell form is soft, not rigid.  While icynene has a lower R value compared to polyurethane products, it generally boasts a higher insulation value than something like traditional batt insulation.

    air krete is an inorganic foam produced from magnesium dioxide (derived from sea water). It is foamed under pressure with a microscopic cell generator and compressed air.  air krete claims that its CFC- and formaldehyde-free products are 100% fireproof and mold proof, with excellent soundproofing capability.

In general, eco-friendly insulation provides a lower risk of the
release of pollutants in the home or office because it is manufactured
from natural fibers or naturally-derived constituents.  That means you’ll be breathing cleaner air at all
times.  Using these natural options provides yet another advantage—less
waste makes its way to the landfills, further reducing the impact of
homes and buildings on the environment.

Article Contributors: Patricia Guth

Patricia Guth has been a reporter for several Philadelphia area newspapers since 1997, penning mostly human interest stories and covering the arts scene.  In addition to her newspaper work, she has written extensively about asbestos and mesothelioma for the past four years, becoming interested in the subject after her mother was diagnosed with an industrial-related cancer, having grown up in the shadow of a chemical plant.  Pat also holds a degree in music and enjoys performing whenever possible.

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