Should you buy a house with UFFI?

Should you buy a house with UFFI?

Who could imagine that mere foam insulation in houses could cost whopping a $13 million? Well that is what happened in the courtroom of Windsor, Ontario (August 12, 2015) in a class action lawsuit against RetroFoam of Canada Inc. by 771 property owners from Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge, Guelph and the surrounding areas. The reason behind this six-and-a-half-year costly ordeal is urea formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) that was injected into their homes between June 2007 and January 2009 through the EcoEnergy program. But the problem cropped up as RetroFoam, manufactured by Polymaster Inc. in Tennessee, which is classified as urea formaldehyde insulation and is banned in Canada.

UFFI insulation
UFFI insulation by dunktanktechnician

During the energy crisis in 1970, approximately 100,000 to 280,000 homes in Canada were insulated with UFFI to cut their heating bills. The idea was to increase the insulation levels in homes by pumping UFFI into hard to cover places like electrical outlets and switch plates, attics, around plumbing and under plumbing fixtures, duct work and every other semi-enclosed space. The government too, through its C.H.I.P program, gave subsidy to many home owners who used UFFI.

Formaldehyde, a binding agent used in water solution as a disinfectant and preservative, is a colourless and pungent gas with a very strong odour. Found in forests, and also a necessary metabolite in our body cells, it is present in cosmetics, paints, exhaust from automobiles, gas appliances, fireplaces, wood stoves, no-iron fabrics, dry cleaning chemicals, cigarette smoke, pillow cases, paper products, diapers plywood, etc.

Formaldehyde2

UFFI, through polymerisation, is turned into solid from liquid and a shaving-cream-like foam is produced when non-transparent thermosetting resin or plastic, made from urea and formaldehyde, is mixed with other foaming agents. Huge pumps and long hoses were used to inject UFFI into the houses' walls and commercial buildings and were later sealed.

Soon there were complaints from several home owners of respiratory problems, eye irritation, runny noses, nosebleeds, headaches and fatigue and all those were blamed on UFFI.

According to Health Canada, "The use of a urea formaldehyde-based resin in the manufacture of UFFI can lead to the release of formaldehyde gas during the curing process and afterwards. Health Canada has concerns about the health of people exposed to formaldehyde".

effects

Though no directly related risk to health through UFFI has been found, Canada banned its use in 1980 followed by the United States where it was also declared a prohibited item. However, in Europe it is still prevalent and is considered as one of the better 'retrofit' insulations.

"UFFI is a serious problem and once found it has been used to insulate the walls of the house, it can result in lowering the price of the property immensely,"

says Richard Silver, salesperson and Vice President of Sotheby's International Realty Canada .

"It gets even harder as mortgage companies refuse to finance such properties."

map

Silver was personally involved in selling off properties with UFFI inside:

"Though in Ontario every residential real estate sales agreement has a clause concerning UFFFI, we too informed the prospective buyers beforehand. They were assured that the owner will take care of it before selling the property."

But taking care of it means gutting the entire area where UFFI was used, and in this case it was the basement.

Not only it is a huge undertaking to make the place UFFI free but also it comes with a heavy price tag. At that time, I am talking about late 80s and early 90s, depending upon the amount of work involved the removal cost was between $20,000 to $30,000. These days, it will cost you double or even more."

And Silver is right; the present cost to take it out is between $65,000 to $90,000.

Silver warns, the whole process of owning the property where UFFI was used can be strenuous. However, smart buyers can use it to their advantage as a bargaining chip.

"They can also ask for reduction in the cost and we too, when advertising the property, make sure to separately highlight the removal cost. This gives a clear idea to the prospective buyers about the room to negotiate," he informed.

According to Silver it is not that houses in Canada are totally free from UFFI. It can be found today in many homes in some amount.

"As a binding agent, it is used in carpets and hardwood floors and is still very much present around us".

According to a report by the Toronto-based home inspectors and consulting engineers Carson Dunlop, there has been no building product as of today as widely and thoroughly investigated as UFFI. However no health risk has been associated with it.

The report stated that formaldehyde levels in the houses are .03 to .04 parts per million (ppm), whereas in the smoking section of cafeterias the levels of these gases are about.0.16 ppm. Houses that have new carpeting will also show similar levels.

numbers

As per the study, the rate at which the formaldehyde gases are released from the material is directly proportional to the temperature and humidity.

Citing an example of a court case in Quebec where plaintiffs accused the federal government of installing dangerous material in houses, the report states that the government's threshold level for formaldehyde gas was 0.5 ppm or 1.0 ppm. However, during testing the claimants' accusation, it was found that none of the UFFI insulated houses had formaldehyde gas levels above 0.1 ppm. It was therefore concluded that once the foam is installed, the levels of formaldehyde rapidly decrease and within a few weeks the formaldehyde level is at ambient house levels.

Whether to buy a house which once had UFFI installed in it is an individual’s personal decision. It is like choosing facts over perceptions. 

However, UFFI myth needs to be destroyed. It is not nearly as dangerous as it was presented in the 1980's. Homeowners shouldn't have to carry the "UFFI stigma" when there is no good reason for it. Bob Aaron said it in 2007 and here we are at the end of 2015 and still, nothing has changed. But until it's removed, it needs to be respected, just as any other law out there.

Title photo by Alex D Stewart

PS00SK

8 Responses

  1. Janette

    How come it’s not banned anywhere else in the world, but just in the US and Canada? I found that weird. If it’s so dangerous, I think the EU would do something about it.

  2. Janice Provence

    It is my understanding that if it was properly installed that is the “mix” of the chemicals was correct UFFI was a great product. After a short period of “off gassing” (like new carpets or cabinetry) the cured insulation was not only a very effective product but a safe one. In the cases where the off gassing process kept going and higher than acceptable levels of formaldehyde gas were present long after the “curing” period it was a poor installation job rather than the fact that UFFI was not a good product. Which is why Europe has NOT banned it. Government regulation of installers was more likely the issue than the product. Today, spray foam insulation can be done poorly and the curing process goes wrong too leading to similar health complaints see the CBC market place report link to youtube.com as an example. Sadly UFFI took the fall and thousands of home owners carry the stigma. As a Realtor myself Licensed in 1992) I would not hesitate to own a home that had UFFI ….however I would want to open a wall and make sure I still had any insulation at all, as badly installed UFFI from 1970, if not removed, would likely have deteriorated into dust by now. If I saw good foam I would be content to own the home.

  3. Lyle McNair

    It’s time the real estate industry killed this concept that the free formaldehyde that has been known to escape from poorly installed UFFI is an issue.

    It’s not UFFI that has ever been the problem!! UFFI stands for Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation, asns as an insulating product it does a great job. It is also very easy to inject into the space between the outer (often brick) wall and the inner plastered or drywalled wall.

    However, the product required onsite mixing of 2 components, and if the installers were not careful, they could use an excess of formaldehyde and that material would then escape over a period of time as free formaldehyde. This material has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animal tests raised to be sensitive to chemical exposure.

    The fact is that UFFI has been used continuously in great Britain and in the US over the past 30+ years that it has been banned in Canada.

    There are 3 recognized ways used to deal with the free from UFFI:
    1. Have the insulation removed at great expense;
    2. Have a heat recovery ventilator installed. It will not only keep the level of free formaldehyde below the acceptable threshold levels, but also ensure a supply of fresh air to the home and do so at a minimum of cost, but it may not be easy to install in older homes to be fully effective.
    3. Have the home tested for the presence of free formaldehyde, a relatively inexpensive test.

    Formaldehyde is still used in many countries as a component of the adhesive system in the manufacture of plywood, and its also an inexpensive preservative used in the production of carpeting.

    UFFI has not been used in Canada as an insulating product since December of 1980, 35 years ago. In the past 18 years of my involvement in real estate I have never had an instance where free formaldehyde has been an issue in a home, because, when tested, it was not detectable.

    Despite the fact that humans are simply a very structured mass of chemicals, and every body process we experience is fully dependent on chemical interactions, chemophobia continue to be an issue in our society, and with a reasonable rationale. There have been far too many situations where chemicals have caused significant issues for the population at large, both unintentionally and intentionally. However UFFI is not one of those.

    The courts in some Canadian jurisdictions have now put the burden of proof for harm from the presence of UFFI on the Buyer.

    A home insulated with UFFI that was installed 30 years ago is effectively a better buy than the same home down the street without UFFI. It does a great job of insulating the home, and if there ever was a real concern, the offending formaldehyde has long since escaped the foam. If you can negotiate a price reduction because of UFFI, that makes it an even better deal.

    In my opinion, it’s time the real estate industry took the bull by the horns on this matter and challenged the continued disclosure of the presence of UFFI on our forms, in the transfer of property ownership, and as an excuse to not provide financing for home purchases. UFFI is being used as a scapegoat where there is no scientific or logical basis for that being the case.

  4. Pete

    Your map is wrong. UFFI isn’t banned in the US, it was banned for only a year or so in 1983. It’s still uncommon to use, but it’s not illegal.

    1. Richard Silver Post author

      Yes, I am aware that it is not illegal in the US or in Canada, however it is not used since the early 80’s in Canada and does stigmatize a property here.. You can still get financing and insurance but the rates may not be prime ones.

  5. Anthony

    There aren’t big health concerns when it comes to UFFI. I’d be more concerned about getting financing or insurance. And if you decide to resell, it might be difficult.

    1. Richard Silver Post author

      Disclosure is the biggest issue but it’s existence sometimes slips by some owners and when it arises, the buyers expect previous owners to pay the costs…litigation is no fun…

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