Foam insulation ban: was a hazard removed or was it overregulation?

Did the US act too hastily to ban a once-popular home insulation product?

After a four-year probe, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recently decided to ban urea-formaldehyde foam insulation, agreeing that its fumes pose a serious health hazard.

But many experts and insulation industry officials think the ban is unnecessary. They argue that tighter controls over installation would provide needed consumer protection. One industry group is planning to challenge the ban in court.

Urea-formaldehyde foam, or UFFI, as it is sometimes called, was the only wet insulation on the market. A professional installer mixed it on the job site to a shaving cream consistency, then pumped it through a tube into the walls, where it dried and hardened. UFFI's unique ability to fill hard-to-reach wall cavities and form a tight seal made it a popular insulator during the mid-1970s energy crunch. An estimated 500,000 US homeowners installed UFFI. The vast majority did not registered complaints with the CPSC.

But for some, the product has been trouble. To homeowner Sharon Jackson (not her real name) of Pittsfield, Mass., news of the ban came as no surprise and little consolation. She bought an old home in 1977 and had it renovated by a contractor.

Although she didn't realize it at the time, the odor she smelled was formaldehyde gas given off by the foam the contractor had put in the walls. She didn't know what type of insulation had been used until three years of ill health led her to ask the contractor about the persistent smell in the house. She has since moved out and is awaiting the outcome of a lawsuit against the UFFI industry.

Several thousand other families have reported health problems of varying degrees after having UFFI installed.

The CPSC investigated the product for four years and found the issue was complex. Experts disagree over just what causes the insulation to give off formaldehyde gas. Sam Zagoria, one of the five CPSC commissioners, says, ''So many variables go into the making of the foam - the weather, the proportion of ingredients. Every installation is almost a new product. And unless you have an inspector on each job site, there's no telling how much formaldehyde you are likely to have coming off the insulation.''

Unable to determine a tolerable level of formaldehyde gas, and lacking confidence in the industry's ability to standardize its product, the CPSC voted 4 to 1 in February to ban the foam. The ban takes effect in mid-August.

But Dr. Clyde W. Frank, professor of chemistry at the University of Iowa, is among those who say tough standards are an adequate solution. ''It has become obvious to us that the application of mandatory standards to the manufacture, distribution, and installation of UFFI will result in no difference in the formaldehyde level between a house that's foamed and a house that isn't,'' he claims.

R. Josh Lanier, president of the National Insulation Certification Institute, argues that there have been only two complaints on the 8,000 installations made since the industry adopted a set of voluntary safety standards last year. Mr. Lanier says his group plans to challenge the commission's decision in court.

The House Government Operations Committee plans hearings in May on what can be done to aid owners of foam-insulated homes.

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