Why Breathing in Insulation Should Be Avoided
You spend enough time watching HGTV to know that DIY home gurus take breathing in insulation seriously. They regularly wear a respirator while they're working with insulation, and now you're wondering if you shouldn't be more careful too.
You have a few home projects coming up, and it's gotten you wondering: are there insulation health risks you need to be aware of? Is fiberglass dangerous? Should you be wearing a respirator of some sort while you're grabbing those big sheets of pink cotton candy? And if there are health concerns, are there other ways to minimize your risk outside of lung protection?
Here is what you need to know…
Table of Contents
What Are Some Insulation Health Risks?
Asbestos and Insulation Health Risks
Is Fiberglass Dangerous?
If Fiberglass Isn’t Biopersistent, is “Insulation Health Risks” a Misnomer?
Respiratory Protection Against Insulation Health Risks
Frequently Asked Questions
What Are the Risks of Breathing in Insulation?
If you ask somebody if they want insulation in their lungs, it will take them only a short time to give you 'no' for an answer. But why is that? We inherently understand that putting things other than clean air into our lungs harms us. Any small child that's accidentally inhaled a bit of pool water can attest to this fact.
But are there specific health risks we must be aware of with insulation? Absolutely.
According to the British Journal of Industrial Medicine, those whose daily job entailed working with insulation had chronic and acute bronchitis at rates 3-4x higher than seen amongst bus drivers. Decreases in forced vital capacity – a marker of lung health – were also noted amongst the insulation workers. (Admittedly, other studies have failed to find this decrease in lung function.)
While there are studies that discount the notion of diminished forced vital capacity amongst insulation workers, we have to ask ourselves why insulation workers were seen with increased rates of bronchitis? Bronchitis is an inflammatory response within the lungs. We know that foreign entities are one of the reasons that inflammation happens, and we also know that part of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is chronic bronchitis.
Even if research never explicitly says, "breathing in insulation gives you COPD," there's still no denying that bronchitis of any sort is bad. People generally enjoy breathing without chest tightness, wheezing, and feeling as if they must get phlegm out of their lungs all day.
But it's not just the increases in bronchitis that have been seen amongst insulation workers; Increases in lung infections have also been noted within the scientific literature. This is a fairly common observation amongst those who regularly work with potential lung hazards, whether automotive spray painters or concrete factory workers. It shouldn't be surprising, is what we're saying.
Working with insulation without gloves is a great way to end up with itchy hands.
With that in mind, it also shouldn't be surprising that one of the main reasons people can get sick when working with insulation is what used to be made of asbestos.
Asbestos and Insulation Health Risks
One of the particular dangers of working with insulation can be found when working amongst older houses. For decades, the use of asbestos in insulation was widespread, and if you live in an older home, there's an excellent chance that there's asbestos behind those walls. This is one of the reasons that special crews often have to be called in when it comes to knocking out walls or demolishing some older homes.
An asbestos remediation team.
We've written extensively about the dangers of asbestos before (as well as how to protect yourself against it), but suffice it to say that this is not something you want to breathe in. Amongst asbestos insulation workers in Canada, lung cancer was found to be the leading cause of death, accounting for 21% of the deaths observed.
What's concerning here is that asbestos is relatively common throughout the United States. One Montana study found that 87% of the homes observed contained asbestos-contaminated vermiculite insulation. If your house was built around the 1920s-1978, there's a good chance it also has asbestos insulation.
Mesothelioma in the lung. (Image courtesy of Yale Rosen at Wikimedia Commons.)
A large part of the reason that asbestos causes so many issues is that it likes to stick around in the lungs for decades. In other words, it's bio-persistent. But seeing that asbestos is no longer used for modern insulation but fiberglass instead, we must ask the question: is fiberglass bio-persistent? Is fiberglass an insulation health risk?
Let's see what the research has to say.
A NOTE OF INTEREST
Within the scientific community, the stuff that does stick around in your body for an extended period after it finds an entrance route is bio-persistent, meaning it persists inside something alive.
Is Breathing Fiberglass Dangerous?
One thing that many people wonder about fiberglass is if it will stick around in your lungs for an extended period. The glasses in your kitchen that you drink out of will last forever, so doesn't it make sense that the glass in your lungs would also last forever? While a logical conclusion, we have to look at what the research says on the subject first.
Typically, the longer a foreign entity sticks around inside your body, the more chance it has to cause health issues. This is one of the reasons that researchers spend so much time trying to find the perfect materials for hip replacements, braces, or the like. It's also one of the reasons that a surgeon is conscientious about not leaving a sponge inside of his patient.
You want to use safe materials inside the body so you don't end up causing some type of long-term health issue.
So then, if you breathe something into your lungs that likes to stick around, can it cause health issues? Absolutely. Once more, just look at the history of asbestos. When inhaled, asbestos tends to set up shop. It may only cause problems once it's inhaled regularly over a long enough period, but the fact is that asbestos tends to stick around.
You only get one set of lungs and want to avoid breathing in stuff that can harm them. You may be able to get by without your appendix, but you can't do the same for the organs responsible for providing your brain with oxygen.
Aside from asbestos and mercury, pesticides and other heavy metals would be considered bio-persistent. This is the reason that it's so crucial for pregnant women to be careful with how much seafood they eat. Mercury is bio-persistent, and the mother doesn't want the mercury to accumulate in both her and her baby's bodies.
But what about fiberglass? Is it bio-persistent?
Is breathing in fiberglass dangerous? The initial opinion suggests so. At least up until the late 80s, fiberglass was classified as a possible carcinogen in the lungs and had cautionary stickers slapped onto its packaging throughout the US as a result. The insulation industry didn't really like this, though, claiming that there was no solid research that insulation did indeed cause human disease and even pointing out that the initial rat studies that "proved" insulation caused lung cancer were heavily flawed.
As more and more research emerged, epidemiological studies corroborated this claim from the insulation industry. Lung cancer rates did not seem to be tied with fiberglass, and the warning stickers were soon taken off the packaging.
Fiberglass is made by spinning molten glass into tiny, crystalline fibers woven together to make insulation. When these little fibers are inhaled, there are a couple of things that do and don't happen.
For starters, most of these fibers are large enough that they are trapped either in the nose or don't make it down to the alveoli. Of course, some do make it down to the alveoli, but when they do, they tend to be trapped in the mucus membrane surrounding the lungs, not even making it into the cell.
Once the lungs recognize that there is a foreign entity inside of them in the form of a piece of fiberglass, they do two things. First, parts of your immune system will start to digest the glass, breaking it apart into smaller pieces until nothing is left. Secondly, the lining of your respiratory tract is coated with trillions of tiny hairs called cilia. These little hairs resemble a football stadium doing a coordinated wave at halftime. Working much like a conveyor belt, they help move foreign particles out of the lungs and into the trachea, where they will be coughed out and expelled from the body.
Combined, these two factors make it so that fiberglass is not a bio-persistent agent. In fact, some research on the substance shows that fiberglass is treated very much like bone once it is inside the body, something that very well could revolutionize the field of tissue bioengineering amongst scientists working on skin grafts, compound fracture, or other biotechnologies.
If Fiberglass Allegedly Isn’t Biopersistent, is Breathing in Insulation Really That Bad?
Before we go down the "insulation is perfectly safe" trail, we must first understand that there are multiple types of fiberglass and that the body may respond differently to them. There's not a lot of research on this at the moment.
And even though fiberglass has been touted to largely be digested by specialized cells within the lungs, it must be remembered that just about every foreign entity, once it enters the lungs, can cause issues. Just because we've found that fiberglass in the lungs doesn't seem to stick around (a finding this author is suspicious of), that doesn't mean there's not bad stuff happening here that we don't know about.
Future research could someday discover that the waste product of a phagocyte that has eaten fiberglass could harm the body.
The other thing that is important to remember is that many asbestos-like fibers aren't technically classified as asbestos by the government.
This doesn't mean that these fibers can't hurt you; it just means that they haven't been studied enough to warrant a response. As we noted above, too, even the most seemingly innocuous substances can cause issues with enough exposure. The history of chimney sweep's cancer, a type of skin cancer simply caused by prolonged exposure to soot, is evidence of this. Who would have thought letting soot sit on your skin too long could cause health issues?
While a rare condition today (when was the last time you called a chimney sweep?), it points to a principle we must remember. Chronic exposure to foreign substances doesn't sit well with the body. We also need to remember that it wasn't long ago that doctors prescribed cigarettes for asthmatics. Kids with asthma were taken away from their parents because it was argued that domineering mothers caused the condition.
Just because the research is pointing in a particular direction, if it goes against your gut instinct, there may be a reason as to why. Maybe not, of course. Plenty of things seemingly defy what we may initially think (water making the heat of hot pepper in your mouth worse, for instance), but we know enough to know that anything other than air in your lungs is harmful.
All logic would point you to believe a glass of water would make eating a habanero less painful.
There's a lot we don't know about the world around us, and sometimes it's best to play it safe. Why do insulation workers wear respirators when they're plying their trade? Because they know they don't want that stuff in their lungs, and you don't, either.
If you spend less time hanging around in your unfinished attic, demolishing walls, or installing your own insulation, you'll likely not be exposed to these dangers. But if you're getting prepared to do any of these tasks, you need to ensure that you are taking the proper steps to protect yourself. And the chief step that you can take is to wear appropriate respiratory protection.
Is fiberglass dangerous? Not to the same degree as asbestos, but you still need to be careful when you're handling it.
Respiratory Protection Against Breathing in Insulation
The extent of the insulation job, the location of the insulation, and the type of insulation installed will all determine the extent of PPE you need to keep yourself safe. We'll leave the spray insulation and crawl space installations to the professional. If we're simply looking at putting up pink fluff in that basement wall you're preparing to hang drywall on, you can probably get away with just wearing a half-face respirator.
For occasions like these, having a MIRA Safety TAPR system with appropriate filters on hand can be incredibly useful (even necessary). The TAPR system allows you to protect your lungs while granting you unimpeded vision to focus on the task at hand. And if you do need eye and skin protection as well? Then a MIRA Safety CM-6M, an MB-90 Powered Air Purifying Respirator (PAPR) system, and one of our HAZ-SUITS would work perfectly for helping you to breathe easily, protect your clothes and skin, and keep your eyes insulation-free.
For working with the standard pink stuff you'll find at your local hardware store for that basement wall project, we recommend using our ParticleMax filters. These filters are P3 rated, which will trap 99.9995% of airborne particulates, including suspended fiberglass.
If you're working with a type of insulation that releases fumes as it's being installed (such as foam insulation), you will want something that will also protect you from those. Our NBC-77 filters, rated to protect soldiers against CBRN threats while on the battlefield, can protect you from fume exposure as well.
With one of these filters attached to your gas mask, your chances of exposure to insulation health risks are minimal.
Cozying Up to the Truth
You have to have insulation in your home if you don't want an electric bill that's sky high, to have a house that's up to code, and if you don't want to spend your winter trying not to freeze to death. There's no way around it. There are some risks in life that you can't entirely avoid, and insulation is one of them.
However, you can still significantly reduce your risk when dealing with insulation, and wearing proper PPE is one of the easy steps you can take. When it comes to protecting yourself here, MIRA Safety has you covered.
What are your thoughts on the subject? What protective steps do you take to avoid inhaling insulation? Let us know in the comment section below.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Some have pointed to the presence of formaldehyde off-gassing as being an insulation health risk. Formaldehyde is currently listed as a carcinogen, so this is a possibility. A filter that protects against vapors could help protect oneself against formaldehyde while this is being installed.
Not within residential settings. While some applications still permit asbestos insulation by the government, it is not allowed to be used as insulation in your walls anymore. The stuff you pick up at your local hardware store will not be asbestos insulation.
Insulation is rated based on the cold it can insulate against, and the R-value helps determine insulation's effectiveness. R60 insulation, commonly used in the attics of North Dakota, is typically much denser than the R30 you can find in Miami attics. Of course, there are different kinds of insulation, but if we're solely looking at rolled insulation, typically, the higher the R values, the thicker the insulation roll will be.
Other materials can also be used for insulation, but if you compare R13 rolled insulation with R19 rolled insulation, they'll probably be made from the same material.
Absolutely. Fiberglass will get into your skin and make you incredibly itchy otherwise. It's also not difficult to touch your face with your unwashed hands and end up with fiberglass in your eyes. If you're going to be messing with insulation, you need to make sure that you are wearing gloves in addition to your other PPE.
There's a reason that insulation workers wear full Tyvek suits and respirators. Breathing in insulation can be dangerous to your health. For further information, check out the section above, "What are the Risks of Breathing in Insulation?"
People mean one of two things when they ask this question. If there are legitimate, visible fiberglass splinters sticking out of the skin, then you will want to use a pair of tweezers to remove them.
If, instead, what is going on is itchiness and dermatitis caused by contact with fiberglass, the best course of option is to scrub it off with cold water and soap. Using hot water causes the skin's pores to open up, allowing fiberglass to enter. Provided you rinse off, you'll have done what you can do.
Fiberglass isn't bio-persistent, so it's not going to stay in your skin forever. However, the itching and irritation can last several hours, and you may want to see a doctor if it lasts longer.
Unfortunately, it's challenging for the untrained human eye to tell what asbestos insulation is without an asbestos testing kit. This site has some excellent illustrative photographs that may help. Artificial intelligence can do it for you through the ACM Check app, too. The best bet is to assume that any insulation you're working with that was from before the 1990s contains asbestos.
Modern insulation typically comprises fiberglass, cellulose, mineral wool, or "natural fibers." These substances can help a dwelling retain warm or cold air and dampen outside sound.
Unfortunately, there aren't any action steps that you can take to get insulation out of your lungs. Once there, you must wait until it's either coughed up or dissolved (at least with fiberglass). If you're talking about asbestos insulation, however, once it's there, it's there to stay.
The fact of the matter is that you want to take respiratory precautions when working with insulation. There can be life-changing health consequences if you don't.
N95 masks filter out 95% of airborne particulates. They do not protect against gasses; however, something some types of insulation do give off. Also, consider that OSHA considers "particulate respirators" (a category N95 respirators fall into) the least protective kinds of masks for filtering out unwanted substances from the air you breathe.
At the very least, you will want to wear long sleeves and pants that you are okay with being trashed if you only deal with small amounts of insulation. If you're going to be working with extensive amounts of it, you're going to want to wear a Tyvek suit.
It is recommended not to spend extended periods in rooms with exposed insulation. Typically, it's only when insulation is disturbed that you have to worry about fiberglass being fluffed out into the air. However, cover all exposed insulation as quickly as possible to play it safe.
If you're going to be breathing it in, yes. There are formaldehyde-free pink insulations on the market, though (PINK Fiberglas Insulation). This would likely prove to be a healthier option to use than other insulations that contain the chemical.