Foam home insulation: not all it was puffed up to be

the house in Mississauga, just west of Toronto, stands open to the elements. Most of its back wall has been removed. The roof is supported with two-by-fours.

Workmen wearing protective clothing and breathing bottled oxygen swing sledge-hammers at the remaining bricks and concrete blocks. Government officials stand by, monitoring the air both inside and out.

The focus of all this activity is the unreaformaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) in the walls of the house.

UFFI, as it's sometimes called, is a moxture of plastic resin and a foaming agent. Looking much like shaving cream, it is pumped through a tube into wall cavities, where it hardens. When UFFI was first approved for use in 1977, it seemed like a good way to solve the difficult problem of upgrading wall insulation. UFFI was installed in nearly 125,000 Canadian homes, and many people had part of their insulation costs paid through the Canadian Home Insulation Program.

Then last April, amid growing concern that the foam might create health hazards, the government banned its use. The ban followed similar moves in Massachusettes and Connecticut. There was mounting evidence that the foam is not always stable, and that in some cases it emits formaldehyde gas, which can produce unpleasant and even dangerous effects.

There is also a whiff of scandal about the gas. The Canadian government has been accused of approving the foam even though its own scientists warned of possible dangers as early as 1976. Those same scientists also stated that the foam's insulating qualities were half those claimed by manufacturers. One senior government official resigned after his order to curb the use of the foam was overruled.

Many Canadians feel that the federal government should accept some responsibility for the problems created by the foam insulation.

Ottawa has taken some action: It has agreed to test 2,000 homes for formaldehyde gas. It has scheduled public hearings on the ban. and it has set up a telephone hotline to advise homeowners on how to deal with the gas leaks. However, the federal government has not offered financial assistance to homeowners who have IFFI in their walls.

The government's foam hotline has actually put Ottawa in even more hot water. Homeowners are being advised to neutralize their wall acivities with the chemical sodium bisulphite after the foam is removed. That's what was done at the Mississauga house. Almost immediately, the contractor's men began to get sick and were pulled off the job.

National Research Council scientiests now say sodium bisulphite, when in contact with formaldehyde, forms new and dangerous combinations. Sulphur dioxide is one such by-product.

Faced with a situation that seems to be getting worse instead of better, homeowners have been considering their options, but are coming up empty-handed. Homeowners who try to sue the contractor are liable to find he's broke or out of business. If they go after the foam manufacturers, one will be broke, and many others will insist the product is safe if it was installed properly.

Sue the government? That could take years.

Some people have joined citizens' groups. In Ontario, HUFFI (Homeowners with Urea-Formaldehyde Foam Insulation), claims a membership of 5,000. Its biggest success so far has been to convince the provincial government to test 45,000 homes for dangerous gases.

Generally, though, HUFFI's meetings do little more than provide a forum for horror stories. Attend one and you'll hear of a family home that suddenly is worth no more than the ground it stands on; no one will buy it. There will be tales about people living in trailers, or with relatives because they have suffered health problems. Members will ask where the money will come from to remove the foam.

It will take several weeks and some $20,000 to put the Mississauga house in order. The owners will have to borrow the money.

"We'd planned to retire in a couple of years," says the wife. "Now, we just don't know."

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