Whether it is to preserve the indoor temperature or block out external noise, foam panels have become a popular choice for home construction and renovation projects. But with the high concentration of chemicals, polyurethane foam panels have always been controversial when it comes to safety.
As someone who’s renovating their home for soundproofing and thermal insulation, foam panels’ toxicity is their biggest concern. Are polyurethane foam panels toxic? Can they cause cancer? Or is it all just a hoax?
With rampant rumors and misinformation over social media, it’s hard to get to the truth without reliable knowledge. Let’s unwind the controversy behind foam panels toxicity and figure out ways to insulate your home safely and effectively.
Foam panels are predominantly safe and non-toxic. While the average lifespan of polyurethane foam panels is seven years, intense deterioration emits VOCs into the air. The small particles do not cause cancer, but extensive exposure could lead to an itchy throat when inhaled. Polyurethane foam panels do not catch fire thanks to the embedded flame retardants. But wear necessary protection during installation and removal.
The Controversy Behind Foam Panels
Since the beginning of industrialization, many products have rolled out without testing or safety checks, potentially threatening human and environmental well-being. From rigid acoustic panels to spray foam solutions, insulation foam is widely used to buffer homes and workplaces from external noise and temperature – and it’s nothing new.
Even though foam panels have been used extensively in building and renovation projects for decades, their safety and viability are still a question mark for some.
As the clean and green narrative picks up pace, plastic and polyurethane products often face scrutiny. In reality, polyurethane foam panels are biochemically inert and non-irritant, making them harmless to the environment and consumer well-being.
Still, off-gassing – the release of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) into the air – is something you should be cautious off. It is quite common in foam panels manufactured through blowing agents. Toxic gases or VOCs are often netted inside the material and released over time which might lead to respiratory conditions.
Whether you’re buying a polyurethane foam mattress or acoustic panels, make sure they are FDA-compliant. While the shelf life of a polyurethane acoustic foam panel is about seven years, have it certified by CertiPUR-US for VOC emissions to ensure quality.
Chemical Makeup of Foam Insulation
Compared to polystyrene, polyurethane foam is rich in chemicals, some of which might impact human health and the environment.
Polyol – A key component in polyurethane foam, polyols react with isocyanate compounds to form more flexible and lightweight urethanes than typical foam. Panels with high polyol concentrations might off-gas and should be padded inside walls.
Isocyanates – Being inherently toxic, isocyanates fuse with alcohol-based polyols creating flexible polyurethane mattresses and acoustic panels that are more eco-friendly.
Surfactants – They are normally used as modifiers to the polyol and isocyanates fusion, ensuring the polyurethane foam retains its shape despite its flexibility.
Flame Retardants – Since polyurethane is combustible, flame retardants are infused as additives to ensure fire resistance. These additives might increase the toxicity of the insulation foam. Technical Bulletin has proved fruitful in offering fire resistance without using actual flame retardants.
Amine Catalysts – Some manufacturers use amine catalysts to speed up the fusion reaction between polyols and isocyanates for better foam insulation.
Possible Dangers of Foam Panels
Spray foam and acoustic panels are non-toxic in general. However, with their relatively costlier prices than other forms of insulation, homeowners are compelled to stuff cheaper, uncertified foam inside their walls with high VOC emissions.
Are Foam Panels Carcinogenic?
With the substantial release of formaldehyde and VOCs into a home’s indoor environment, foam’s toxicity is often perceived to cause cancer. On the contrary, polyurethane foam panels do not exhibit any cancer-causing compounds.
While it’s true that fiberglass foam insulation was used as a flame retardant – an alternative to asbestos – in the 1940s, it carries no carcinogens. Being considered safe by the EPA, polyurethane foam has become a reliable and versatile building product ever since.
But unlike plastic, foam doesn’t always stay the same. They deteriorate and flake off over time which usually leads to off-gassing, especially if it’s improperly installed or disturbed. The emissions may cause eye irritation or an itchy throat when inhaled. That’s why it’s mandatory to wear protective gear during the installation and removal.
Besides the potential health risks, releasing volatile compounds can also threaten the environment. Not to mention, you might not achieve the same level of soundproofing or thermal insulation.
Acoustic Foam Panels – A Potential Fire Hazard?
Polyurethane foam panels are flammable, but strict compliance with building codes makes them unlikely to catch fire. Such panels are coated with certain flame-retardant chemicals for better fire resistance. Almost all polyurethane foams manufactured today are FDA-compliant and certified by RoHS and REACH in terms of flammability tests.
Before buying acoustic panels, ask your supplier or merchant about their flammability class or rating to ensure they are fire-resistant. The flammability rating is usually described as;
- Fire Rating Class B1: High Fire Resistance
- Fire Rating Class B2: Normally Flammable
- Fire Rating Class B3: Easily Flammable
Even though foam panels are fire-resistant with a strong threshold against high temperatures, setting them in places with direct sunlight might accelerate deterioration. Foam panels with a fire rating of B2 or B3 are better suited for stuffing the drywalls, but if you want to layer up the walls, make sure you stick with the B1 class.
Like traditional fiberglass panels, paneled insulation must be treated with retardants to develop a strong barrier against temperature. In the case of spray foam insulation, the retardants activate when the foam is applied to corners, emitting harmful fumes in the process. Wearing safety goggles, masks, and gloves is essential when using polyurethane foam spray.
Acoustic Foam Panels – Are They Worth It?
While traditional insulation and spray foam are embedded inside walls to barricade the outside environment, acoustic foam panels are clad on the finished walls, preserving the indoor ecosystem. However, using acoustic foam panels to soundproof an interior space from the external ruckus is a bit vague.
Polyurethane foam panels are more effective in removing echo and limiting the reverberations inside an enclosed space than blocking external noise from leaking in. These panels are designed for recording booths and music studios, allowing vocal artists and musicians to record clear music.
Fiberglass insulation and rock wool are better equipped to refract or absorb sound waves than standard acoustic panels. Besides, being naturally inert makes them safer in case of fire or unimaginably high temperatures. The acoustic treatment panels by Jxgzyy could also be a better fit.
How to Make Foam Panels Safe and Effective?
Installing polyurethane foam panels the right way can help avoid potential health risks, posing very little threat to the environment. What’s better is, applying spray foam or mounting up panels on the wall is straightforward.
You don’t have to shred the drywall or the ceiling to infuse the panels unless you are planning a renovation. We have lined up some practical tips to minimize their adverse effects before and after installation:
Determine the Right Location
Instead of mounting the foam panels abruptly, install them in spots that are usually the noisiest. Place them at eye level because that’s where high-frequency sound waves strike first and with full intensity.
Make sure the spot you have selected does not receive direct sunlight, or it might cause the panels to deteriorate faster due to the high temperature. Not to mention, the longer exposure to sunlight may also induce even toxic off-gassing.
Wrap Up With Fabric Covers
Keeping the polyurethane panels exposed to sunlight or human contact can have adverse health risks. While high temperature causes the foam to deteriorate faster than its average shelf life, frequent touching could increase the VOCs emissions into the air. These tiny particles could lead to an itchy throat or incite an allergy.
Cloaking the foam panels with fabric covers or art wrapping is a quick hack to avert the problem. But make sure the covering does not cloak polyurethane’s effectiveness as an acoustic panel. Use polyester or cotton fabrics to disguise the panels without blocking the sound-absorbing pores.
Keep Up With the Maintenance
While covering the polyurethane panels with fabric is an effective way to pause general degradation, physical contact isn’t everything that disturbs panels’ effectiveness.
Despite being covered with fabric, dust and debris could accumulate inside the foam pores, undermining its overall performance. In most cases, a gentle wipe with a soaked-up cloth will do the job, but if the dirt is deeply submerged, you might need to give it a light vacuum.
People Also Asked
We discussed the toxicity of foam panels and what measures can be taken to make their use safe and effective. Now, before we wrap up, here are the answers of a couple of frequent questions:
Can foam panels catch fire?
Yes, foam panels are inherently combustible. Although they can bear high temperatures, polyurethane panels can catch fire if exposed to a spark. But most foam panels are embedded with flame retardants or technical Bulletin that ensures fire resistance.
Are foam panels safe to breathe?
When exposed to direct sunlight or human contact, Foam panels release VOCs into the air. Even though particles are too small to cause any adverse damage, they could kick off an allergy or cause an itchy throat.