Another View: Foam insulation doesn’t get a free pass from safety law

Meredith Williams
Meredith Williams

California has long been a leader in both energy efficiency and public health protection. But a recent column by a senior director of the American Chemistry Council, the nation’s largest chemical industry trade association, would have your readers believe that we have to choose between the two (“‘Green chemistry’ is hampering goals on energy efficiency, climate change,” Viewpoints, April 7).

While his argument might be good for the chemical industry, it is bad for public health.

Under California’s landmark Green Chemistry law, the Department of Toxic Substances Control is requiring companies to take a preventive approach to chemicals that pose risks to public health – including those that cause cancer, harm development and damage the reproductive process – and requiring companies to investigate using safer and equally effective alternatives.

DTSC is working with other state agencies to ensure that the foam insulation in people’s homes is both energy efficient and safe to install. Studies have shown that methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, one of the main ingredients in spray polyurethane foam insulation, has inherent health risks. It is known to damage lungs, cause asthma and trigger asthma attacks in workers who install the foam. That’s why under the Green Chemistry law, DTSC is asking manufacturers to conduct an analysis of alternative insulation ingredients.

Unfortunately, foam insulation installers often work under conditions that don’t provide the greatest protections. A thorough analysis of methylene diphenyl diisocyanate and its alternatives could make workers safer by reducing or eliminating the dangerous ingredients and lessening the need for protective gear. It would also reduce the risks to homeowners who install foam insulation on their own, without proper training or adequate protective measures.

To be sure, spray polyurethane foam increases the energy efficiency of buildings, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But it’s a false choice to argue that consumers must choose between this and a safer product.

If safer alternatives exist, we reserve the right to require them. If they don’t exist, we will do what it takes to ensure workers and the public are safe until safer chemicals are available. The state is counting on chemical manufacturers to play an important role in developing safer consumer products for everyone.

Meredith Williams is deputy director of the Safer Products and Workplaces Program at the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.