In previous articles we talked about the myths about the behaviour of polyurethane in case of fire. Today we want to talk about other myths circulating about this material, this time in terms of its effects on health. Is polyurethane toxic? Is it dangerous for people? In the following article, we will clear up any doubts surrounding this material.
What effects does polyurethane have on the health of users?
Polyurethane is the result of the chemical reaction between a polyol and a diisocyanate. Once the chemical reaction of its components has taken place, the result is a polyurethane foam that is completely inert and harmless to humans.
Contrary to what some people claim, various studies certify that polyurethane does not pose a risk to the health of users.
In fact, polyurethane is present in our lives in hundreds of forms, some directly in contact with skin or other fabrics: seats, shoes, coverings, bags, cushions, mattresses, children's toys, or even prostheses and other surgical materials.
What about the health of the workers who manipulate it?
Workers who are involved in the installation phase of already manufactured polyurethane insulation products, such as sheets or panels, do not need to take special measures.
However, the sprayed polyurethane foam must be applied by qualified professionals who always comply with the required safety measures, because when liquid chemical components are mixed, concentrations higher than the exposure limit values can be reached.
For this reason, these workers must be equipped with elements such as overalls, gloves, air-driven systems or air supply or masks, according to the manufacturer's instructions or the recommendations of national associations and suppliers.
What effect does polyurethane have on the air inside buildings?
It is undoubtedly of the utmost importance that the air inside buildings does not contain substances harmful to the health of their inhabitants. However, you should be aware that the quality of this air depends on many factors, such as humidity or ventilation, and emissions from building materials have a negligible effect on air quality compared to these other factors.
Moreover, insulation in a building is not exposed to the indoor environment, unlike cladding or furniture.
The following PU Europe graph shows the minimal implication of building materials in diseases caused by indoor air pollution, as opposed to the rest of factors.
Therefore, if you are concerned that polyurethane produces toxic emissions that pollute or reduce the quality of the air in the rooms, you can rest assured.
Although isocyanate or MDI is present in the chemical reaction, the polyurethane foam formed becomes an inert material and nothing remains of the isocyanate previously present, so there are no emissions of this substance.
As for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or semivolatiles (SVOCs), PU Europe states that polyurethane insulation has very low emission levels. In their tests, they found no substances harmful to health in the emissions.
In fact, the emissions of sprayed polyurethane are much lower than those of many other insulating materials, reaching even 100 times lower.
In addition, polyurethane contributes to the health of the building, as it prevents the proliferation of fungi and moulds, as well as the appearance of condensation, as it allows the building envelope to transpire.
For all these reasons, its impact on air quality is minimal and it is a product that is totally appropriate for the health of the inhabitants and the building.
And in case of fire? I've heard that the fumes produced when the polyurethane burns are toxic.
Inhalation of smoke in case of fire is harmful to health and can even lead to death. However, the toxicity of that smoke will depend on many factors, such as the size of the room we are in, the temperature we reach, the ventilation of the room or how long we are exposed to the smoke. All this regardless of the insulating material present in the building.
In order to contribute to the safety of buildings, PU Europe prepared a report on the behaviour of different insulating materials in the event of fire and the contribution of these materials to the toxicity of the smoke released, in comparison with the contribution of the rest of the elements in the room.
The results of the test with regard to the rate of release of heat, smoke and gas emissions show that the main source of gas emissions comes from the contents of the room, and not from the building materials.
The sharp peak in the concentration of toxic gases occurred significantly before the building envelope and insulation materials were involved in the fire. The contribution of the insulation materials is negligible.
At the end of the tests, when the insulation materials already came into contact with the fire, the levels of toxic gas emissions that were recorded were considerably lower.
Are there laws regulating the use of polyurethane?
Of course there are. Like all building materials, polyurethane is subject to national and European laws that guarantee the safety of building users.
The Construction Products Directive (89/106/EEC) establishes mandatory design and construction measures for European countries, which ensure that buildings guarantee the hygiene and safety of their occupants.
This directive provides, among other things, that there are no harmful emissions of VOCs, greenhouse gases, etc... In fact, the European Union also called for the creation of a harmonised testing standard to measure VOC and SVOC emissions from construction products.
Within the framework of these regulations, we can state that polyurethane is not a material toxic to health,nor does it produce harmful emissions, otherwise its use would be restricted.