Industrial hygiene (aka occupational hygiene) focuses on occupational-related diseases due to many reasons.home fireplace

Have you considered, at your home, maybe even as you sleep, you might be exposed to something hazardous? Below are seven possible hazards in your home (related to IH):

  1. Radon. It comes from the ground and they say it causes cancer* (*some people question this toxicological data). You must perform a test to know if you have hazardous levels.
  2. Formaldehyde. If you have a newer house you have 2 things going against you: 1. your house is tightly built (no air leaks and limited fresh air) and 2. more particle board (recycled wood) was used in construction. Also, many furniture contains multidensity fiber wood (MDF) which off gas formaldehyde. Again test for it to know if you have dangerous levels.
  3. Lead. Is your house built prior to 1978? It probably has leaded paint. Any remodeling might distrupt it and you can expose your kids to lead.
  4. Isocyantes. (HDI, TDI, MDI, and others) Can cause asthma & respiratory issues. If your house was insulated with spray foam (polyurethane type) it needs to off-gas for awhile before you move right in.
  5. Asbestos. Causes cancer when airborne. If your house was built prior to 1980, you might have asbestos in your pipe insulation, popcorn ceiling, etc. Be sure and have it checked prior to remodeling.
  6. Mold. Respiratory diseases.
  7. Cleaning products. The symptoms can vary depending on the type of chemicals in the product. Use the recommended gloves, eye protection and respirator, if necessary, while cleaning with chemicals.

Do not be overly concerned about any one thing. Simply test and make any necessary adjustments. However, do keep in mind that most health recommendations for substances relate to normal working adults who go home to a non-hazardous place. There can be issues if you are either: not considered in the general population of healthy workers and, you go home to a place that isn’t free of additional hazards.

Let me first say that I am still learning about this hazard and why it is so dangerous.

Polyurethane foam is used as an insulating material. More info on it’s uses here. The danger is when you spray it (think: expandable type), or apply it, or cut/remove it after it’s cured. The danger is in the off-gassing.

There are two main considerations:spray foam

  • the process of applying the foam
    • spray type
    • quantity?,
    • ventilation?
  • the type (manufacturer/brand/type) of foam
    • curing rate,
    • type of hazard, etc.

What we know is that there is a hazard. AND, this hazard may not effect everyone, OR, it may not effect you until some time has gone by. But, some of the chemicals in these types of products include:

There is a huge potential for work related asthma when using these types of products. And, even contact with the skin can trigger an allergic response/asthma attack. If you have employees working around this type of product and have ANY respiratory symptoms (or asthma), please have them checked by an occupational medicine doctor.

Control of this hazard should include:

  • PPE for employees (respiratory, eye, & skin protection)
  • ventilation during application
  • ventilation during off-gassing & curing (can be 72 hours)
  • control plan for spills, cutting & demo
  • control plan for employee/occupants with asthma

The EPA has a quick reference card here (hat tip to Tom), and more detail from the EPA on how to control the hazard here. The Spray Polyurethane Foam Alliance has free training here (haven’t checked it out though), and be mindful that anyone can be an instructor (good & bad).

It’s not a secret. (previous article here) Formaldehyde is in many types of composite, pressboard, and multidensity wood products. The EPA is now proposing to limit the amount of formaldehyde that can be added to these types of products.

When you build a structure, these types of products can offgass small amounts of formaldehyde. Even though the total formaldehyde is far less than 1% of the total product by weight/volume (which means it may NOT be listed on the SDS/MSDS- clue: look for the Prop 65 label). This can add up. The EPA is proposing to regulate the amount of formaldehyde a product can off-gas, and provide 3rd party certification framework for regulating it . composite wood

Unfortunately, nowadays “GREEN” products/ or recycled goods can contain a lot of formaldehyde. (used in the process of making & adhering the different recycled materials together).

Expect some push back from industry. Even though it’s a known carcinogen, there is sure to be some push-back.

From what I have seen, there are not a large amount of formaldehyde exposures in construction. However, there is A LOT of formaldehyde used in construction materials. Formaldehyde can be dangerous at levels undetectable by your nose. And, the symptoms of exposure are nondescript (irritant & tingling of eyes, nose, respiratory tract).

Here are some products that may contain trace (or more) amounts of formaldehyde:

  • resins in plywood, MDF, CDX, particle board/fiber board
  • garage doors
  • drywall
  • roofing
  • glues / mastics
  • paint/coatings
  • carpets
  • insulation (spray in and batting)

I believe the reason we do not see high exposures is due to the limited duration of exposure, and the open-aired nature during the construction. Some exceptions are warehouses with large storage areas of particle board/MDF. (I have found exposures in these areas)

The OSHA exposure limit for formaldehyde is 0.75 ppm (action limit of 0.5 ppm, and short term limit of 2 ppm). However, this may not be low enough, based upon other standards (ACGIH says 0.3 ppm, NIOSH 0.1 ppm)

Another major issue with this hazard in construction is once the space is occupied.

  • Once construction is done, the space may be sealed up, heated, and additional curing can occur.
  • This may release more formaldehyde, and also NOT allow as much to escape (by dilution ventilation).
  • Compounding this issue are the type of occupants in the building. Are there children, non-working adults, immunocompromised individuals, sick, or elderly occupying this space? The OSHA standards are NOT protective for these types of people.

I do not forsee this type of sign being posted immediately after new construction.

formaldehydeOn the plus side, someone has discovered that plants may help reduce formaldehyde & VOC levels in homes. Horticulture Science Kwang Jim Kim,


This is cutting edge here, folks. A “new” mineral has been found to cause mesothelioma. As you might know, asbestos exposure can cause 3 diseases; 1. asbestosis, 2. lung cancer, and 3. mesothelioma. Previously it was thought that only asbestos exposures could cause asbestosis and mesothelioma. (Side: This is why late-night attorney’s wonder if you have those diseases….if you do, you were exposed at some point)

However, there is a new suspect: Erionite. (wiki it here)

This new mineral has been documented to cause mesothelioma and has asbestos-like physical properties.

The mineral is found in many places, near volcanoes. Below is a map from the site.  Also, here is a link to the MSN republish of the fairwarning article. I guarantee there will be more news  in the media about this in the future. Here is the scientific article from University of Hawaii.

The big scare in commercial construction is a new Senate House Bill 596 which makes certain insulation with the polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) illegal to install if you’re in Oregon. I think this bill caught everyone off guard.

PBDEs are used in fireproofing as a flame-retardant. However, they are in LOTs of other things including; foam products, plastics, couches, etc.

The issue is that this chemical(s) is a bioaccumulator. And this description is telling. It accumulates in your body. Health studies are inconclusive, and forthcoming, but it could be linked to brain development, memory, learning, and lowering thyroid hormone levels.  Most all symptoms are long term, but as mentioned before, it accumulates.

For more information about PBDE you can start at the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry. The Oregon Health Authority is enforcing the rule. The Fact Sheet is here dated January 28, 2011.

I am cautious about saying if this is a real-public health issue, or just a passing scare. Honestly I don’t know. I haven’t seen a lot of information about the health effects from unbiased sources (please point me in if you have).  Regardless, this is in some brands of commercial insulation, and if you’re in Oregon, you should not install it.