Throughout most of the twentieth century, asbestos could be found in many of the insulation products used in homes and commercial buildings throughout the country. Contractors lauded the properties of asbestos-containing insulation for decades, stressing the importance of the material’s durability and fire and heat resistance. Asbestos products, like W.R. Grace’s Zonolite insulation, were used in millions of homes across the U.S. and Canada and in many other countries. Individuals exposed to asbestos—either directly from asbestos jobsites or indirectly through second-hand exposure—can be at risk for developing mesothelioma.
Today, the dangers associated with asbestos are well known and there are numerous alternatives to asbestos products currently on the market. Therefore, when remodeling a home or renovating an office building, there are many options to be considered. Many of these alternative products are “green”, providing a safe alternative for the environment as well as for the individuals inside the building. Most are readily available and can be provided by a contractor.
Spray polyurethane foams can be used in any type of structure and these products are extremely safe in that they emit no harmful gases. Icynene, a water-based spray, is also an excellent choice for homes whose inhabitants have problems with allergies as it forms a very tight seal allowing little space for dust and/or mold. Manufacturers of these alternative products claim that their use reduces energy costs by about 30-35 percent annually. The only drawback is that they must be installed by a certified professional, which results in a slightly higher installation cost. When choosing a polyurethane foam, however, be sure to choose one which does not contain polybrominated dephenyl ethers (PBDEs). PBDEs have been known to be toxic to the developing brains of animals and could potentially cause nervous system problems in humans. There are plenty of non-PBDE alternatives on the market.
Some companies sell crack and crevice fillers and extenders made of natural materials that aid in insulation. These might include pecan shell flour, rice hull ash, rice flour, and wheat flour. Because these are totally natural, they are indeed a great "green" option, presenting no hazards to those who are exposed to them. However, not all contractors offer this option so it might take some shopping around to find one.
One of the most popular alternatives to asbestos, cellulose insulation is made from finely shredded newsprint. Chemically treated to increase fire resistance and reduce mold, cellulose fiber is generally made of 85 percent recycled content, making it another viable green option. It is good for use in commercial or residential buildings. As a matter of fact, US GreenFiber, a company that manufactures cellulose insulation and other natural products, notes that about 15 percent of all new green buildings constructed in the U.S. choose this alternative. Records show it cuts energy costs by about 20 percent annually.
Thermoset Plastic Flour
Thermoset plastics can be filled with wood flour and other low-priced fillers to reduce cost and provide a balance of good insulation and strength. The building and construction industry is one of the largest users of plastics in the world and have called upon products such as this for heat, cold, and sound insulation for both energy saving and noise reduction purposes.
Amorphous Silica Fabrics
These fabrics are high temperature materials used for a wide range of insulation and protection applications in industries such as aerospace, shipyards, molten metal and electric power generation. Generally not used for residential applications, the fabrics do contain fiberglass, which has come into question as a health hazard. However, in many industries these products have indeed replaced similar products that once contained asbestos.