Being slowly poisoned while carrying out their daily activities in their own home is one of the worst nightmares of any homeowner. It’s been proven that the presence of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs can make inhabitants seriously sick. That’s because VOCs are chemicals that have a high vapor pressure at ordinary room temperature. This way VOCs can be released into indoor air from materials found in many buildings.
One compound (that is not VOC) has been unnecessary vilified, then rehabilitated, and then vilified again; and that’s fiberglass. From dubious blogs to attorneys looking to profit from frivolous lawsuits, there’s plenty of misleading information about fiberglass. So let’s set the record straight.
According to Illinois Department of Public Health, fiberglass is the trade name for a man-made fiber that also may be called fibrous glass or glass wool. Fiberglass is, therefore, a type of fiber reinforced plastic where the reinforcement fiber is specifically glass fiber.
Fiberglass is a strong lightweight material and is used for many products. It was first used in the 1930s for home furnace filters and insulation. Fiberglass also is used to insulate pipes and appliances, for sound control in aircrafts and automobiles, and in curtains, roofing material and some plastics. In housing, glass-reinforced plastics are used to produce building components such as roofing laminate, door surrounds, chimneys, coping systems, and heads with keystones and sills. The material’s reduced weight and easier handling, compared to wood or metal, allows faster installation. Mass-produced fiberglass brick-effect panels can be used in the construction of composite housing, and can include insulation to reduce heat loss.
Fiberglass is also used in the telecommunications industry for shrouding antennas.
So it’s really everywhere. Fiberglass was nominated as a top safety concern on the synthetic mineral fiber list for the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) back in 1994 due to some inconclusive and potentially flawed studies in animals. Later on, fiberglass was removed from the list, but it was enough to raise concerns of alarmists and conspiracy theorists.
Fiberglass is not a VOC and there’s no evidence that it leaches any harmful substances in the environment. It is true that when working with or installing this material, the small fibers can be swallowed or inhaled, where they may remain in your lungs for long periods of time, potentially leading to health issues, like a rash, respiratory problems or even cancer (just like many other man-made foreign substances).
Dust is produced when fiberglass is trimmed, chopped, cut, sanded or sawed. Exposure to the fibers present in the dust can occur by skin contact, by breathing the dust or by swallowing the fibers. This usually occurs in indoor environments when a person is working with fiberglass. Once fiberglass is installed, exposure to fibers will not take place unless it is moved, such as during remodeling.
You can take steps to reduce your exposure to fibers when working with materials that contain fiberglass:
- Wear loose fitting, long-sleeved clothing and gloves. This will reduce skin contact and irritation.
- Wear a mask over the nose and mouth to prevent breathing in the fibers.
- Wear goggles or safety glasses with side shields to protect the eyes.
- Open a window or a door to increase ventilation and reduce dust levels.
Once properly installed, fiberglass found in your attic (as part of insulation) or small amounts found in your roofing materials are not dangerous and there’s no proof they can make you sick.
If you want to be extra cautious, you can choose newer formaldehyde-free fiberglass, since formaldehyde is considered to be a carcinogen.
For those who are willing to go an extra mile just to be sure, here are other options for insulation other than fiberglass. The following green building products are safe, effective, and will not make your skin irritated and itchy the way conventional fiberglass often does. Plus, some are made from recycled materials or require far less energy to manufacture than fiberglass, making them a positive choice for the environment as well as your health. Options for natural, non-toxic insulation include products made from:
- Recycled blue jeans
- Recycled newspapers and paper products
- Cotton fiber
- Sheep’s wool