Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) – Overview

Testing for total Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) vs testing for spray foam off gassing with local VOC tests

Many of the companies that do Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) testing have very little background with polyurethane foam and its chemistry. They may try to hide a lack of technical expertise given that they are supposed to be the experts on all things IAQ. The fact of the matter is that unless they specialize in Spray Polyurethane Foam (SPF) chemistry, diagnostics, and remediation they probably can’t prove that foam is a problem or what to do about it. In order to prove causation, your “house doctor” has to determine or do the following:
1. Determine what all of the chemical compounds are in the specific foam product that is in your house. Most manufacturers have several products and have Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) for them that include chemicals they call “trade secret” or “proprietary.” There are hundreds of chemicals used in hundreds of formulations on the market at any given time. To complicate things further, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has mandated a change to “greener” blowing agents, and many small to mid-sized foam manufacturers have been bought up recently by the larger companies that can afford to develop new chemistry, and it is hard to know whose product the large companies are selling in any given region under a given trade name. Some of the products are inventory from the previous brands with new labeling. Covid and its supply-chain issues didn’t help.
2. Send your air samples to an accredited analytical laboratory that can identify all of the possible compounds are that are in a given product, and be sure that the laboratory will test for all of them. I asked one accredited analytical laboratory to at least include all of the compounds in a product’s SDS and they said they couldn’t. They could only look for the compounds on a standard list. Most American Society of Testing Materials (ASTM) test methods (i.e. TO-15 and TO-17) used for testing SPF emissions only include fifteen or twenty of the 500-plus possible compounds, not counting any possible contaminants in the base chemicals. If you look at the lists those test methods include, it is rare that any of the compounds found in the foam’s SDS is listed in the test method. Some labs claim that they are limited to these test methods by the states they are located in. If you don’t ask, they will just test for what their standard test includes.
3. Determine that most standard VOC tests are performed to find common household contaminants. Again, the list of compounds in this protocol will rarely include any of the compounds found in the SPF in your home. Then they tell you that your Total VOCs are high but don’t tell you the sources of the VOCs, and/or can’t show that they are from the foam itself.
4. Determine what the exposure limit is for every compound on the list of compounds their tests identify in order to assign causation (prove what the source is) to any compound, they have to. Compound X may be in your home, but the level (concentration) of that compound may be minimal or even below what is in the air outside (aka background level). Most IAQ practitioners do not have this information and may not be qualified to determine what, if any, level is a health risk (requires medical credentials) for any individual.
5. Determine the sources of the VOCs. Different laboratories use different rating systems and don’t explain well enough that a High Total VOC number could be from one compound, or from the combination of a great number of contaminants. They may not know which “VOC” is causing your issue or if it comes from SPF. So, if your laboratory report has ten Contamination Index Categories, only one or two may be above Normal. For example, if the Gasoline and Personal Care Products are very high, your Total VOC number will be high, but this doesn’t mean that your foam or paint is a problem. You want to tighten up your garage and clean out the medicine cabinet, then test again. Don’t rip out the insulation and thermal barrier just in case it is the problem. SPF is the best insulation and air barrier product on the market so you have to identify the source before you remediate.
6. Finally, a house doctor has to determine where all of the compounds come from or what they are used for. Houses with spray foam are typically tighter than other homes and previous or new contaminants found in a home after a major renovation like yours may be trapped at a higher concentration inside than before the foam was installed. Ask your General Contractor or Heating Ventilating contractor if your new system meets the ASHRAE 62.2 Standard for fresh air ventilation. It’s required! Most won’t even know what that standard is. Ask your IAQ professional what the source of each compound rated as “Elevated” or “Severe” is. What does it come from? Many contaminants come from more than one source, and most are “Mixed Building and Lifestyle Sources.” Hard to pin down a precise source even if you have a list of possibilities without being able to compare specifically what is in the air to what is in the foam.
7. So, to know if spray foam is the cause of your odor, headache, etc., you have to know what is in the foam, what is in the air that is also in the foam, if what is in the foam and in the air is an odorant or a health risk, and if the concentration in the air is enough to be a health risk.

I hope this quick preview of the IAQ process for spray foam is helpful. I would be glad to discuss an IAQ report with you. Please know that this doesn’t mean that your problem can’t be spray foam, but just that you may need more information to confidently come to that conclusion. There are also a number of methods for remediating SPF emissions, not just remove and replace, which is what most experts recommend.