Health considerations

As discussed in Chap. 7, the debate has been intensifying since the mid-1980s as to the safety of using fiberglass insulation. The con­cern has been that the fibers that comprise fiberglass may replicate the affects of the fibers found in another silicon dioxide material, asbestos. The structure and size of these glass fibers vary. The smaller fibers, which cannot be seen by the naked eye, are sus­pected of entering the lungs, whereas larger, visible fiberglass par­ticles can be irritating to the skin, eyes, nose, and throat.

Fiberglass is listed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a potential carcinogen and by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) as “reasonably anticipated to be a car­cinogen.” Although occupational and residential exposures to fiberglass fibers are low when compared with past asbestos expo­sures, all fiberglass insulation is required to have a cancer warn­ing label as mandated by the OSHA Hazard communication standard.11

The Consumer Product Safety Commission also has found that “fibrous glass is carcinogenic in animals only when surgically implanted into the lung or abdomen. In tests where animals were exposed by inhalation, the expected route of human exposure, the animals did not develop tumors. Therefore, the animal implanta­tion studies do not establish a hazard to humans.”12 Nevertheless, fiberglass as a simple irritant is well documented. Fiberglass released into the air during its manufacture or handling also may create temporary upper respiratory tract irritation. Like skin irritation, upper respiratory tract irritation is a mechanical reaction to the fibers. It is not an allergic reaction, and the irrita­tion generally does not persist. Such exposures to high concentra­tions of airborne fiberglass may result in temporary coughing or wheezing. These effects will subside after the worker is removed from exposure.13

Workers in fiberglass manufacturing plants, as well as people working with or using materials that contain fiberglass, may develop a skin irritation. This mechanical irritation is a physical reaction of the skin to the ends of fibers that have rubbed against or become embedded in the skin’s outer layer. Any skin irritation caused by fiberglass is temporary. Washing the exposed skin gen­tly with warm water and mild soap can relieve it. The vast major­ity of workers and consumers, however, can control skin irritation by following recommended work practices when handling the material. Fiberglass is also the catalyst for eye irritation if deposited in the eye by the user’s fingers or through fibers in the air. If this should happen, the eyes should not be rubbed but rinsed thoroughly with warm water, and a doctor should be consulted if irritation persists.13