Nontoxic Alternatives to Polyurethane Foam

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Nontoxic Alternatives to Polyurethane Foam
Solid foam panels are just one option for home insulation. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

When deciding on the right insulation to use in your new home construction or remodelling project, toxicity and the effect on indoor air quality are important factors to consider. VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, are a real concern for health-conscious consumers. There are many products on the market now boasting new, less toxic formulas. To ensure long-term respiratory and overall health for youself and your family, educate yourself on the different insulation options and their toxicity levels.


The biggest air quality risk with fibreglass insulation occurs during installation. With proper procedure, however, inhalation of the fibres can be avoided. Fibreglass is available in batt form (long panels) or a loose-fill, spray-in form. While many manufacturers still use formaldehyde, look for fibreglass labelled "formaldehyde-free," "low-emitting" or "Greenguard certified." Fibreglass is considered a moderate-VOC-level insulation.

Mineral Wool

Considered a relatively health-risk-free insulation, mineral wool is a product made from molten rock or slag from steel mills. As with fibreglass, the greatest health risk with any fibre insulation such as mineral wool occurs during installation. The effect mineral wool has on air quality will depend on the origin of its fibre and how it was processed.

Natural Wool

Though a much costlier option, natural wool is a VOC-free insulation with the fewest effects on human health of all insulation products. It comes in batts like fibreglass, and the wool is usually bonded with a percentage of polyester for durability. Installation of natural wool poses no health risk as the fibres are not prone to become airborne.


Manufactured from post-consumer recycled paper, cellulose insulation is a safe, VOC-free option. The fibre is processed with non-toxic borate, posing no health concern to humans. The biggest disadvantage to cellulose insulation is its vulnerability to moisture. Because cellulose fibres do not repel but absorb moisture, this type of insulation, when used in a damp climate, may lead to mould growth in the walls.

Polyisocyanurate (PIR) Foam Panels

Essentially an improvement on polyurethane foam, PIR is derived from petrochemicals. PIR boasts no lasting chemical irritants once installed; however, you may experience mechanical irritation from airborne particles during installation.

Soy-Based Spray Foams

Introduced as an alternative to spray polyurethane foam (SPF), soy-based products have become increasingly popular. Be aware that an official labelling code for soy-based foams does not yet exist, and many products may contain only a nominal fraction of soy oil. While the toxicity of SPF is still under-researched by the EPA, soy-based spray foams are entirely VOC-free.

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