In Roofing: Part 2 I will explain what we used for roof insulation, recommend some safer caulk options to seal roof vent pipes, and discuss ceiling materials.
Finding safe insulation is one of the more challenging aspects of healthy house building. Not only are there questionable chemicals in all the options (like flame retardants), insulating your whole roof, even in a small house, still amounts to a lot of material. You need to be really sure you can tolerate that material. I worried that testing a small sample of insulation, say one foot square, would not give me an accurate reading on how I would react to a whole roof’s worth. In fact, testing even small samples of insulation caused me some of the worst reactions I had testing building materials.
Here are some of the products I tested:
Ultratouch Insulation is the recycled blue jeans product that is often recommended as a green insulating option. Unfortunately, green is not the same as healthy. I had a very bad reaction to the sample. I don’t know if it was the flame-retardants, insect treatments, or possibly dyes and other chemicals used to make denim. Typically, it takes me months of airing out and soaking a single pair of jeans to make them safe so why I thought a whole roof full blue jeans scraps would be my insulation solution eludes me.
Icynene is a spray foam insulation that a healthy house consultant recommended to us. The Icynene contractor dropped off a thick sample for me to test. After 30 minutes of exposure to the sample, I had severe brain fog, a headache, and was uncoordinated and dizzy for several hours after. Icynene contains 50% isocyanates. Here is what the Centers for Disease Control has to say about isocyanates:
“Isocyanates are powerful irritants to the mucous membranes of the eyes and gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts. Direct skin contact can also cause marked inflammation. Isocyanates can also sensitize workers, making them subject to severe asthma attacks if they are exposed again. There is evidence that both respiratory and dermal exposures can lead to sensitization.” Centers for Disease Control on Isocyanates
The consultant who recommended this product claimed that once the foam dries it is very inert and well tolerated. Since my sample piece was dry (and I was told old) I would caution people to be careful if you are told this material is safe for people with environmental illness.
I had high hopes for wool insulation but that test also did not go well. I have since learned that, depending on the brand, wool insulation manufacturers use latex or acrylic binders and insect repellents. One of the companies I got a sample from speculated that I may even have reacted to the detergents used to wash the wool before making them into batts.
I never tested recycled cellulose because I read it can become moldy in the event of a roof leak. Here is an interesting article from Fine Homebuilding about both cellulose and blue jeans insulation:
I was nervous about testing rigid foam boards such as EPS (extruded polystyrene) or XPS (extruded polystyrene), but I found I could sit next to a whole 24” x 96” EPS board without reacting.
“Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) is the generic industry name for the white rigid material made by expanding polystyrene beads with steam and pressure to bond the beads together to form blocks or to shape molds.” Universal Foam Products Website
A helpful overview article on safer insulation options called Zero VOC Insulation from the My Chemical Free House site also notes that “All of these (rigid) foams have no odour and most sensitive people do not react to them.” Rigid foam boards do, however, contain a flame retardant known as HBCD, up to 5% in XPS versus up to 1% in EPS.
Because my test of the sample board went well and EPS boards have less flame retardant than XPS, we decided to use blocks of EPS foam to insulate our roof. The flame retardant made us uneasy, though, so we completely wrapped each block like a giant Christmas present in Denny Foil and sealed it with Polyken aluminum tape. In the photo below you can see the 10” thick blocks of EPS waiting to be wrapped.
The wrapped blocks were then squeezed between the rafters. If any tears occurred as a result of the installation, the tears were taped over with more Polyken. After all the blocks were installed, we decided for added protection to have a layer of Denny foil stapled to the rafters over all the wrapped blocks. The photo below shows the first sheet of Denny foil going up over the rafters and insulation:
Denny foil is a vapor barrier so some say there is a risk that condensation could form on the foil and cause mold to form on the wood in contact with the condensation. I am extremely allergic to mold so I did not take this concern lightly. But we were told our roof was well vented and that this outcome was unlikely. Also, as I wrote in Roofing: Part 1, the Denny foil is creating an important barrier between the living space and all the risky materials above the ceiling like the insulation, wiring, and the terpenes (natural VOC’s) coming off the roofing lumber. Since we live in a dry desert climate with low humidity, we decided to prioritize the need to protect the living space as much as possible. If you live in a more humid part of the country, check with local builders on the safety of using an aluminum building foil in this way.
We decided to use tongue and groove aspen sealed with two coats of AFM Safe Seal for the ceiling.
I love our aspen ceiling but the AFM Safe Seal smelled quite a bit for several months. AFM says Safe Seal is cured in 48 hours. I took that to mean “totally dry, does not smell” but this does not seem to be the case. I could not move into the house safely for a year and one month after it was finished and I often wondered if the gallons of Safe Seal required to seal the ceiling contributed to this delay. Or possibly the Safe Seal was safe after a few months. I’ll never know.
Nonetheless, I have tried to come up with other ceiling solutions we might have tried. One is pressed tin:
I don’t know how expensive this would be or if the paints and sealers used on the surface are safe but I share this idea in case someone wants to pursue this. The other thought I had, which is more unorthodox, is corrugated metal roofing:
It is an inexpensive material and it comes in many colors. Many brands bake the color on in an oven (called thermoset), which seems to make these paints pretty inert because they do their off gassing in the oven.
Plumbing vent pipes or any other vent pipes coming out of the roof need to be well sealed to prevent leaks.
First a plumbing boot is slid over the vent pipe, then the boot is caulked where the pipe and boot meet and also where the boot attaches to the roofing.
Click here for “How To Install A Roof Pipe Boot” YouTube video
The best caulk I’ve heard of that is recommended for the chemically sensitive is Eco-Bond. If you click the link, it takes you to Amazon where one of the reviews begins, “I have multiple chemical sensitivities. I have serious reactions to regular caulk and searched for a product that would not give off the wretched smell. This product did not harm me!” (I am not saying you should buy from Amazon, I just wanted to share that review.) AFM also has a product called Caulking Compound that seems to be well tolerated.
Roofing and particularly insulation cause people trying to build safe, healthy houses a lot of anxiety. I have shared with you what we did, but if you have a solution or product that worked for you, please let me know and I will share it. We purchased our EPS rigid foam board from:
- Universal Foam Products
My husband and I can’t remember how we found them, but we think it was because we were trying to find a source for dye-free white EPS boards (instead of the blue or pink rigid foam boards) and Universal Foam Products offered them. Another rigid foam board manufacturer I have heard other chemically sensitive/environmentally ill people recommend is Johns Manville, particularly their foil faced polyiso foam.
As always good luck with your building project!