EPA puts spray foam insulation under spotlight
A recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announcement about consumer use of spray foam insulation threatens to deflate the growing sales — and availability — of this popular product. In April, the EPA expressed its concerns about certain chemicals found in spray polyurethane foam, which is applied as a liquid and then expands to fill cavities or gaps.
“There has been an increase in recent years in promoting the use of foams and sealants by do-it-yourself, energy-conscious homeowners, and many people may now be unknowingly exposed to risks from these chemicals,” said Steve Owens, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Protection, in an April 14 press release. Professionals who use these chemicals are regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), he explained. They must wear the proper protection and abide by set exposure limits. But in the case of consumer use pattern and exposure, “there is very limited information,” he noted.
The list of proposed EPA actions to address these concerns left little doubt about the agency’s resolve: It wants data from manufacturers on any past allegations of adverse effects, unpublished health and safety data from any and all industry sources, exposure-monitoring studies for consumer products, and a possible ban or restriction on consumer products containing “uncured” polyurethanes.
In an interview with the EPA, spokesman Dale Kemery shed more light on the EPA’s concerns and answered a series of questions about what the new study entails. While spray foam insulation may have garnered the most attention, certain concrete sealants, adhesives and floor-finishing chemicals are also under scrutiny because they contain polyurethanes that further react and “cure” when they’re released in the atmosphere. Exposure to these compounds can cause severe skin and breathing allergic responses. These chemicals have also been documented to cause asthma and lung damage, according to the EPA.
Professionals who use spray foam insulation wear full body protection, solvent-resistant gloves and hooded ventilators, as per OSHA regulations. But DIYers have been able to buy spray foam canisters from contractor supply houses or rent the two pressurized tanks, tubing and spray nozzle from insulation distributors. Then they spend the weekend spraying their attics and crawl spaces, often without protective gear.
Besides the pro channel-crossing by DIYers, there is also concern about what consumers can buy in a typical hardware store, the EPA said. “There is a growing availability of products that contained uncured [polyurethane] in retail and home improvement stores, as well as for purchase over the Internet,” Kemery said. “Some advertising claims do not clearly indicate that these products contain hazardous chemicals.”
Is the EPA talking about spray insulation in a can, like Dow’s Great Stuff, DAP’s Kwik Foam, and other products used to seal cracks in windows and doorways? “Yes,” Kemery said.
Most manufacturers contacted for this story either didn’t respond or referred questions to one of the two trade associations that represent spray foam insulation makers. A Dow spokeswoman added: “Dow provides clear safety instructions [regarding polyurethanes] on all SPF products.” CertainTeed, which makes CertaSpray Foam for wall cavities, attics and other large spaces, markets the product to people either building or shopping for a new home. Consumers are encouraged to look for spray insulation as a desirable feature.
While the EPA hasn’t yet laid out a time line for its action plan, it did provide some background on its interaction with industry groups up until the announcement. In 2009, the EPA formed a work group that included representatives of spray foam installers, distributors and manufacturers. The federal work group developed an online training program, but this resource has not solved the problem of self-employed workers setting up shop as spray foam installers.
“We saw this as a growing concern [back in 2009], when plumbers, carpenters and other [tradesmen] started moving into this industry,” said Kurt Riesenberg, executive director of the Spray Polyurethane Foam Alliance, a trade association working with the EPA work group. “This [process] is not the same as rolling out a bunch of batts.”
According to Riesenberg, most professionals use high-pressure equipment mounted on trailers that they rent from manufacturers or other providers. Requirements may include bonding, insurance and a business license. Homeowners tend to use low-pressure “kit foam,” often purchased online, comprised of small canisters, hoses and a trigger gun that “squirts” out the insulation.
The kit foam comes with hazard warnings and a link to a video. Protection masks can also be purchased. Compared with the high-pressure systems, “the exposure threat is extraordinarily low,” Riesenberg said.
As for spray foams that come in a can, Riesenberg said that the small volume and exposure time for users make these products very low-risk. But that doesn’t exempt them from the review, he said, adding: “When the EPA casts a net, they cast a wide net.” Although the initial EPA announcement said a ban is possible, Riesenberg called that “beyond extremely remote.”
Another trade group with a seat at the table will be the Adhesive and Sealant Council. Mark Collatz, director of government relations for the organization, pointed out that the review process is in its earliest stages. “A lot of what they’re doing is fact finding,” Collatz said. The EPA will want to gather any unpublished data on product testing, and it may require manufacturers to do more health and safety studies. The EPA said this might mean “epidemiological or clinical studies, studies of occupational exposure, in vivo and in vitro toxicological studies and ecotoxicological studies.”
Pryor, Okla.-based Red Devil makes an aerosol can of spray insulation called Foam Fill, and CEO Bill Lee said he isn’t too concerned about the EPA’s review. Red Devil’s main focus is on sealants and caulking, the latter featuring a patented silicone/acrylic hybrid.
“There’s a lot of concern by the government that everything we manufacture is water-based and low VOC,” said Lee, who is firmly behind the effort. “We need to be looking at that, and also the carbon footprint that our manufacturers [make]. I’d like to see the government focus on what is in the technical capabilities of today and set some of [these] mandates for the industry.”
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On the value of FSC certification
“It is pay to play. Consumers have bought into the deal. If you fill out forms, pay fees to an offshore entity in Europe, you are good to go.”
— Todd Wilfong M4L Inc.
“I do not know of any customers asking about any wood certification of any kind. If selling FSC lumber were the only way that I could sell lumber, I’d switch to plastic!”
— Seth Arluck
New Hampton Lumber Co.
“I direct the FSC program at American Lumber, a lumber and building materials wholesaler in the Northeast. We keep FSC cedar, pine and fir specialties, hardwood plywood in inventory, as well as (when available) tropical hardwood decking. In this category, there is excellent opportunity for FSC Chain of Custody dealers to identify and satisfy demand.
“What I’ve seen is that there is a lot of demand from architects and municipalities for FSC-certified lumber, but this interest has often ended in disappointment. For years it was true that FSC-certified material might be available only at a 20% premium or higher, plus freight from a remote location, and might not be readily available in the sizes and quantities desired.
“But the state of play has changed a lot from just a couple of years ago. It is now possible to buy an enormous range of cedar and pine (at least) at a very moderate premium and immediately shippable from stock. Our FSC business has been growing at 30% annually over the past two years, and we expect growth to continue. While it does not make good business sense for most dealers to switch over large chunks of their inventory entirely to FSC or to carry dual inventories, with the right supply chain structure it is possible to satisfy architect, homeowner and government interest in FSC wood economically and swiftly.”
— Joshua Kaye
American Lumber Co.
“We have had very little (practically none) inquiry for FSC certification of our wood products. While we sell products from all producing regions in North America, as well as from Chile and Argentina, we are in the South where the mills, if certified at all, favor SFI. As I’ve said many times when asked this same question, the forests in the South are well managed. The volume of production from these forests is greater than it ever was in the virgin timber days. Timber is looked upon as an investment and without proper management, the owners will be out of the timber business.”
— Buddy Klumb
Klumb Lumber Co.
On falling home prices
(The following letters refer to a news story in which Toll Brothers CEO Robert Toll questioned media reports of home-price declines.)
“Certainly the foreclosed properties are influencing home prices, but my larger concern is the Case-Shiller Price Index that everyone looks at as a ‘scientific guide’ for home prices. It is nothing more than an average of prices of homes sold in a given time period. It has no bearing on the value of my home or any other. If mostly foreclosed homes sell this month then that index will be down. If we suddenly sell a bunch of upper-end homes, that index will be up.
“Neither tells me anything about my home value or any other.
“The media needs to qualify the value of this report, or stop using it.”
— Gary Allen
“Obviously, Mr. Toll needs a reality check.
Blended prices are indeed a true representation of real-time pricing of available housing options for buyers.
Certainly Toll Brother’s higher-end ‘new’-home offerings may have bottomed from their perspective, but in every market I can imagine, there are very high-quality options for interested buyers — all at huge discounts, and the market continues to see more homes coming to market. This dynamic will likely be with us for two more years.
Simply check with county tax folks to see what upscale properties are being sold at today versus a year ago, and which are now being reassessed at much lower taxable value.”
— Mike Hatfield
Hardware Store All-Stars
“I would like to thank Home Channel News for its recent list of ‘50 Winning Retailers, State by State.’ Several of my friends and fellow Ace Hardware store owners were mentioned. Although it is not a state, I would like to request that the next time you publish this list you include the District of Columbia. As the owner of five Ace stores in D.C. (and two more in Baltimore), we are often overlooked as a real hardware store location. The District is also home to three fantastic True Value stores. Washington has more than 600,000 residents, and our population swells to more than 1 million with commuters during the day.”
— Gina Schaefer
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The Top 300: A noble effort
Not to pick on Fortune Magazine — after all, I want to be a billionaire someday, too — but who couldn’t come up with a list of 500 publicly traded companies? Not to disparage our competitor’s fine work, but their Fortune 500 issue almost writes itself. All they really need is Google and a spreadsheet.
Not so with the Home Channel News Industry Scoreboard — focused on the performance of the Top 300 Retailers in the home improvement and building materials industries. You can count the publicly traded companies on your two hands. The rest of the data is tucked away in desk drawers or computer files, and we have to get it or figure out a reasonable approximation.
Our list is a joint effort between Home Channel News and Tampa, Fla.-based research firm Chain Store Guide. The process began in earnest in February and involved countless phone calls, emails and then more phone calls and emails.
Luckily, most people in positions of power and trust at hardware stores, home centers and LBM dealers support our cause. They answer our questions. And we thank them.
Some things have changed with our list in 2011.
1) We tightened it.
The Top 500 Industry Scoreboard is now the Top 300 Industry Scoreboard. Why? To borrow from the noble Roman Brutus: “It’s not that we loved companies ranked 301 to 500 less, but that we loved companies ranked 1 to 300 more.”
We feel that putting the focus on the Top 300 was a better use of time and resources that would allow higher-quality editorial overall. In fact, our Top 500, Top 350 and Top 150 Scoreboard series is now the Top 300, Top 200 and Top 100 — all more focused on the top.
2) We kicked off Wal-Mart Stores.
Again to borrow from Brutus: “As Wal-Mart Stores sold paint and home improvement, we honor them. But as they sold apparel and groceries, we removed them.”
Listing Wal-Mart — and also Sears and Kmart — along with the specific home channel companies was problematic on a number of fronts. The employee counts and sales figures skewed our benchmarking, or reduced them to weak estimates.
Our Top 300 should be focused on retailers squarely in the home channel, because that’s what we do.
3) We put it on the Web.
On pages 21 through 26, you will find the first 100 of our retailers. The complete Top 300 list resides at homechannelnews.com. All you have to do is register, then read. It’s that simple.
Some things haven’t changed. Our goal is to make each list better than the prior year’s list. And we want our Scoreboard to be the biggest and best of its kind. Again with the Brutus: “We pause for your reply via email.”
— Ken Clark
Ken, I like the style of your
Ken, I like the style of your "From the Editor" column for this issue and how you wove in the references to Brutus. VERY well done! John