Don’t go green with this housing industry product

Published 10:00 am Monday, April 17, 2017

by Peter Roff

From using reusable shopping bags to driving hybrid cars, consumers have been persuaded they can do their part to protect the environment by changing their behavior. Everyone’s “going green” these days, even America’s housing industry.

Homebuilders and renovators are installing a variety of high tech energy saving appliances, heating, and cooling systems. And, more and more they’re using cellulose insulation because, they say, it makes homes more energy efficient.

Green advocates back it all even though the use of cellulose insulation (chemically treated recycled newsprint) may not be all it is cracked up to be.

The Better Business Bureau’s National Advertising Division dinged a major cellulose insulation manufacturer for using studies from the late 1980s and early 1990s to back up claims it’s made related to the efficiency of its product.

According to the report, the evidence for such assertions as “cellulose is from 20 percent to 50 percent more effective than fiberglass” and “cellulose insulation can reduce your utility bill by up to 40 percent” is insufficient, yet these claims commonly appear in industry marketing materials.

This matters because it’s just these kinds of unsubstantiated performance claims that earned glowing endorsements for the material from many green advocates. It’s a concern, obviously, but not nearly so much as the now uncertain claims made about cellulose insulation’s safety and toxicity.

On some promotional materials, the producers of cellulose insulation claim boric acid – the second largest ingredient, added as a fire retardant – lowers the risk of some cancers and is six times less toxic than table salt.

That not what the National Institutes of Health thinks. It’s a dangerous substance, so much so that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration classified it “hazardous” under the Hazard Communications Standard. A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services toxicology study identified boric acid as a reproductive toxin.

A 2006 joint study by HHS and NIH on cellulose insulation exposure in the work place concluded the research on any association of cellulose insulation and respiratory disease in humans is insufficient.

One would hope the lack of any epidemiological studies would prevent the industry from making outlandish claims regarding non-carcinogenicity, but that’s not where things seem to be going.

The red flags don’t stop there. Per OSHA protocols, workers that install cellulose insulation are required to wear dust respirators and other protective gear when handling the material. You don’t have to think too hard about that to conclude the material is dangerous in some form or fashion. Just ask “Dirty Job’s” Mike Rowe, who tackled the subject on an episode of his hit TV show.

Contrary to claims from cellulose insulation manufacturers, it is also not the “cure all” for preventing residential fires. Federal government safety agencies require cellulose manufacturers to label their products as fire hazards. Since 2016, there have been multiple fires attributed to cellulose insulation around the country.

These fires, in Waterloo and Carroll, Iowa; Rexburg, Idaho; Gladwin and Burtchville, Michigan; Asheville and Kinston, North Carolina; Limerick, Pennsylvania; Layton, Utah; and Yuba City, California, have destroyed homes and apartment buildings alike and left families devastated.

Increasing the energy efficiency of the home is a good idea, just not at the expense of safety. Consumers deserve to know what going into their homes. The cellulose insulation folks need to clean up their act.

Peter Roff is a former senior political writer for UPI and a well-known commentator based in Washington, D.C. Email him at