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Thursday, Feb. 3, 2005 12:51 am

earth talk 2-3-05

Dear “Earth Talk”: I have asthma as a result of exposure to the fiberglass insulation in our home. How can I find insulation that won’t make me sick? — Cynthia Bacon, Orlando, Fla.

Fiberglass, a common home insulator that became popular after the dangers of asbestos became more widely known, is itself now associated with a range of health issues. Microscopic slivers of fiberglass can break loose during handling and be inhaled, irritating the lining of the respiratory tract and becoming lodged in lung tissue. This can cause a fibrous buildup that reduces lung capacity, or it can cause DNA mutations that can lead to lung cancer. In fact, cancer warnings appear on all fiberglass insulation sold in the United States.

Although wearing a respirator or dust mask can prevent the inhalation of fibers during installation, all three principal U.S. manufacturers of fiberglass insulation now seal their batts in perforated polyethylene or polypropylene sheeting so as to prevent airborne exposure. Nevertheless, for those with aggravated respiratory problems, replacing fiberglass insulation with a more environmentally friendly alternative may be the best option. Luckily, many such options are available.

A favorite of environmental advocates is cellulose, which is made from recycled, shredded newspaper. In his book The Solar House author Dan Chiras calls cellulose “one of the most environmentally friendly insulation choices.” It is also highly efficient, readily available, and economically priced, he says, and thus competes well with fiberglass.

Chiras also recommends cotton insulation, calling it “a natural product and safe from a human health standpoint” but acknowledging that it is twice the price of fiberglass and “one of the most chemically intensive crops grown in the United States.” It contains no formaldehyde binders, however (a health and environmental plus) and usually contains a fire retardant (an important safety consideration).

The Fiberglass Information Network also recommends insulation batts made from recycled No. 1 plastic, known as PET, the same material used to make some soda bottles and carpeting. Manufactured by Rtica Corp., based in Stony Creek, Ontario, the batts are installed in the same way as fiberglass and make for an excellent fiberglass-replacement choice.

But before you rip out that old fiberglass, it may be worth your while to get a professional to evaluate the integrity of your home’s ductwork. With properly sealed ducts, any stray fiberglass slivers inside your walls should not be able to get out. In the case of duct contamination, your best bet is to replace the entire system. Duct cleaning is also an option, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not recommend it. If you do decide to opt for cleaning, the National Air Duct Cleaners Association offers a list of companies that can do the work.

For more information: Fiberglass Information Network, www.sustainableenterprises.com/fin; Rtica Corp., 905-643-8669, www.rtica.com; National Air Duct Cleaners Association, 202-737-2926, www.nadca.com.

Send questions to “Earth Talk” in care of E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; or e-mail earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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