Selection of insulation has generally focused on a material’s ability to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from a building’s operation, though increasingly considerations include GHG emissions from a material’s life cycle, from manufacture through disposal (known as embodied carbon). However, this singular focus on GHGs fails to account for other harmful emissions associated with the life cycle of these materials, including toxic pollution that disproportionately burdens Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), and/or low-income communities. As billions of pounds of new insulation is being installed in buildings each year, failure to address these toxic impacts will mean that building decarbonization efforts will further entrench environmental injustice.
Healthy Building Network joined NRDC and Energy Efficiency for All in an analysis of the life cycle chemical and environmental justice impacts of two popular building insulation materials—fiberglass and spray polyurethane foam (SPF).
The analysis found that both SPF and fiberglass release pollution into BIPOC communities over their life cycles, but SPF carries a much heavier pollution burden. The combined population surrounding the facilities that manufacture the key ingredient of SPF has almost double the percentage of Latino people compared to the U.S. overall. These facilities reported releasing an average of about 560,000 pounds of related hazardous chemicals every year and have a history of noncompliance with EPA regulations. Our previous research also found that spray foam has significant hazardous chemical concerns during installation and use in buildings.
Regarding embodied carbon, while the specifics vary, studies (such as here, here, and here) consistently show that closed cell SPF has significantly higher embodied carbon per R-value than fiberglass insulation. Further, SPF is made from almost entirely fossil fuel-derived inputs, with no recovery, reuse, or recycling of the material—necessitating continued extraction and refining of fossil fuels to produce this insulation product. Overall, comparing material health, environmental justice, and embodied carbon impacts between SPF and fiberglass, fiberglass is preferable on all accounts.
However, fiberglass manufacturing still releases hazardous pollution into communities who are disproportionately BIPOC and/or low income, and many fiberglass facilities have exhibited regular noncompliance with EPA regulations. Fiberglass manufacturers can reduce and eliminate such pollution by using less hazardous chemistries. For example, all four U.S. manufacturers reported reduced releases of formaldehyde by changing to safer binder formulations for many of their products between 2002 and 2015.
Why It Matters
As laid out in the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform:
“To achieve our [climate] goals, we will need to overcome past failures that have led us to the crisis conditions we face today. Past failures include the perpetuation of systemic inequalities that have left communities of color, tribal communities, and low-income communities exposed to the highest levels of toxic pollution and the most burdened and affected by climate change. The defining environmental crisis of our time now demands an urgency to act. Yet this urgency must not displace or abandon the fundamental principles of democracy and justice…Unless justice and equity are central components of our climate agenda, the inequality of the carbon-based economy will be replicated in the new economy.”
To truly be part of a just and equitable transition to a clean economy, climate solutions like building insulation must advance the well-being of BIPOC and low-income communities. We recommend that embodied chemical and environmental justice impacts drive material decision-making on par with consideration of GHG emissions.
Your Action Today = Healthier, More Just Future
In general, there are significant opportunities to improve the life cycle of building insulation materials through avoiding hazardous chemicals, implementing circularity, and taking other actions stemming from the principles of green chemistry and environmental justice.
Manufacturers and policymakers should advance transparency about what is in a product, how and where it is made, and the hazardous releases that occur throughout its life cycle. In the meantime, those who choose building materials can start by avoiding hazardous chemicals in a product’s content to help protect not only building occupants and installers, but also others impacted by those hazardous chemicals throughout the supply chain. Healthy Building Network’s product guidance can help you choose safer materials.
All stakeholders (including manufacturers, policymakers, and those who choose building materials) should support the leadership of frontline communities and make changes to their own practice so that all families have healthy places to live, learn, work, and play.
More information and additional recommendations for stakeholders can be found in the case studies and report brief. Also, hear from a frontline community near fiberglass manufacturing in Kansas City, KS in their blog post.
This article was co-authored by Veena Singla at NRDC.