As the federal government prepares to spend $110 million of our tax dollars in a urea formal-dehyde foam insulation (UFFI) “relief program” for the 80,000 or so “UFFI-struck households,” I can’t help but feel that the banning of UFFI is turning out to be one of the most costly and ill-conceived blunders to have been perpetrated on a modern and supposedly well-educated society. After more than a half-million homes in North America were insulated with UFFI, it was banned by the Canadian government and some U.S. state governments on the grounds that living in homes with UFFI constituted a health hazard. This, when our own federal government not only approved but subsidized its use in 30,000 homes through the Canadian Home Insulation Program.
In spite of a careful search for affected patients, I and other chest physicians in the Toronto-Hamilton area have yet to find a single documented case of UFFI-related illness. Furthermore, there is no scientifically sound evidence to support the contention that UFFI is a significant health hazard in man. Not only do very few of us live in a formaldehyde-free environment but, like oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide, formaldehyde is normally present in every cell in our bodies. It is a ubiquitous material that is found in plywood, chipboard, acrylic carpeting and carpetbonding agents, car exhaust, fried foods, cosmetics, some fabrics and in many other substances, and it “off gases” readily from these materials. It is also found in high concentrations in tobacco smoke. For this reason it is likely that the formaldehyde concentration in non-UFFl-insulated homes and in those insulated with UFFI was found to be similar in Canadian health department and University of Iowa studies. A New Jersey study even showed that many of the same symptoms were more prevalent in people living in houses without UFFI. At the same time, the overall frequency of health complaints was slightly greater than in those living in homes without UFFI.
In Massachusetts, prior to the November, 1979, ban, complaints occurred in only one-quarter of one per cent of 50,000 homes with UFFI, while in another group of 5,330 homes there were no complaints whatsoever. In the same vein, insulation contractors who have installed cellulose or fibreglass insula-
tion but not UFFI have reported hundreds of calls from their customers describing the “media symptoms” after reading about the hazards of UFFI in their local papers. Callers said they felt much better after being assured their homes did not contain UFFI.
Last year the commissioner of public health for Massachusetts (the first state to ban UFFI) was sued by a number of UFFI manufacturers on the grounds that the decision to ban and remove the UFFI from homes was not based on provable health effects. This past January, in a landmark decision of that state’s Superior Court, Judge John Ronan ruled that the department of health had prejudged the issues in the UFFI controversy and that the ban was, in fact, “arbitrary and capricious” and “not based on scientific fact.” It was revealed that many homes without UFFI were found to have higher levels of formaldehyde
Except for rare instances of minor irritation, foam insulation does not constitute a health hazard in man
than UFFI homes and that many other sources of formaldehyde were overlooked in the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) overzealous attempts to ban foam insulation.
It seems that Health and Welfare Canada, with its December, 1980, UFFI moratorium and subsequent final banning in March, 1981, proceeded in a similar fashion without thoroughly investigating the matter either. The Massachusetts court ruled that it was incorrect to classify exposure to formaldehyde as an irritant or as toxic at any level of concentration. Consequently, the finding that formaldehyde is “hazardous” irrespective of any given level of exposure was likewise without a rational basis. If UFFI is all that harmful, then how can it be that in Europe, where it has been used for more than 20 years, health effects similar to those described in North America have not been a big problem, and its installation as insulating material continues?
In man, the “media symptoms and diseases” related to formaldehyde or UFFI can be divided into relatively minor complaints such as fatigue, dizzi-
ness, headache, nausea and irritation of the eyes, nose or throat, and major problems such as asthma or cancer. At worst, the minor complaints might be regarded as irritants, not likely caused by UFFI, but there is no scientific evidence that formaldehyde in concentrations resulting from UFFI vapor in homes can produce asthma or cancer. In the case of asthma, a careful study performed at the Mayo Clinic of 20 asthmatic patients from UFFI homes was unable to demonstrate that the asthma could, in any way, be related to formaldehyde or UFFI dust. And as for malignancy, five studies of formaldehydeexposed workers from England, Denmark and the United States conducted between 1975 and the present failed to find a single case of upper respiratory tract cancer or any increased overall risk of cancer attributable to formaldehyde in concentrations of 20 to 50 times those found in UFFI homes (although rats have been shown to develop nasal malignancy in old age if exposed to extremely high concentrations of formaldehyde for most of their lives).
How did we as a society get into this sorry mess and what can be done to avoid similar debacles in future? I think that the problem has arisen because of an unwitting conspiracy between an uncritical and sensation-oriented press that reports in lurid detail healthrelated problems from almost any source, factual or not, without seeking expert advice and scientific proof; politicians looking for a “cause célèbre”; and consumer protection or government advisory committees with a temporarily suspended critical scientific sense and a desire to err (if at all) on the side of safety.
In the light of the accumulating evidence, the department of consumer affairs and health ministries in Canada and the United States should reassess the situation and try to allay the current mass hysteria by coming out with a clear statement that, except for rare instances of minor irritation, UFFI does not constitute a health hazard in man. Until they do, people with UFFI in their homes will continue unnecessarily to fear for their health and, indeed, their lives, not to mention to face financial ruin because their homes aren’t worth anything.
Dr. Newhouse is professor of medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont, He and his family live comfortably in an UFFI home.
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