The Honorable Peter Lougheed is the Premier of Alberta, The Montreal Canadiens win their 18th Stanley Cup, and construction begins on the CN Tower. For the trivia buffs out there, the year is 1973 and in October of the year, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) begins an oil embargo against the USA and all its allies including Canada, because of their support of Israel in the Yom Kippur war of 1973. Although Alberta had oil to sell, the industry was primarily owned by American companies, so Alberta sold oil to the USA at a fixed price, and Canada bought it back at a rising global price. This prompted the Trudeau government to institute three notable policies, first, it set a fixed price that consumers could be charged for oil, second, it built a plant to develop synthetic oil known as Syncrude in partnership with Alberta and Ontario, third, it created Petro-Canada as a nationally controlled oil company, all leading to the eventual creation of the National Energy Program.
I will drop the political narrative there to keep Alberta heads from exploding over how those policies ended up, but more in line with this article, Canadians were extremely afraid of an energy shortage through the winter months should such an embargo happen again. Added to that, the increasing energy costs was a big problem, so the government instituted a grant for increasing the energy efficiency of a home, and Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation (UFFI) was included in the approved list of upgrades in 1977.
Invented in the 1950s and gaining wide use in Europe starting in the 1960s, UFFI was an easy retrofit material because it could be applied to existing wall spaces with only a small injection hole. The foam would expand in the cavity and cure (harden) solid filling the entire space even around electrical wires, receptacles, etc. eliminating drafts. By adding UFFI to the grant program, Canadians were incentivized to install this insulation and over 100,000 homes jumped on the opportunity. Unfortunately, by 1978, stories started circulating about adverse health effects that could be caused by UFFI installation, and by 1980 – at breakneck speed in government policy terms – a full national ban was instituted on its use. In fact, as a knee-jerk reaction to public angst, the government of Canada started a removal and remediation assistance program in 1981 which ran through 1986, the cost of the subsidy running around half a billion dollars in the 80s!
Ironically, the problem was largely a public relations problem for the federal government. What I mean is that to date, no court has awarded damages to any consumer because of UFFI installation anywhere to my knowledge. The original claim that prompted panic was that after installation of UFFI, the off-gassing of the foam as it cured was releasing formaldehyde into the home at toxic levels. Although it was proven that the off-gassing produced elevated formaldehyde levels, it only lasted a few days before the air would test at less than one part per million. As a result of increased testing, it was found that since many other building materials used, and still use urea-formaldehyde resins such as wood adhesives in the manufacture of pressure-treated wood products, medium density fiberboard, hardwood plywood, as well as textile treatments like drapes and curtains, the continuing formaldehyde levels in UFFI homes were comparable to levels in non-UFFI homes. Regardless, the stigma endured and even a case that made it to the US Court of Appeals in 1983 was unable to present evidence of significant health effects due to UFFI off-gassing and overturned the US ban on UFFI use in the US where UFFI is still installed today. As a side note, UFFI was never banned in Europe and continues to be legal and used for specific applications.
As of the writing of this article, UFFI is largely a dead issue in Alberta, despite it remaining on the tongues and minds of many boomers and Gen Xers. In 1993 CMHC stopped requiring a UFFI declaration for housing purchases. As it turns out the unspoken issue of UFFI was that it turned out to be a lousy insulation product in the long term since it was found to shrink as much as an inch and is also susceptible to breakdown in the presence of water or elevated humidity supporting mold growth and decreased insulative capacity. If you find that your home contains UFFI during a renovation, for example, the solution is to plan to have it removed and replaced with a superior product. Modern spray foam insulation is primarily polyurethane based making for an excellent long-term insulator that also provides a vapor barrier against moisture. Traditional methods of fiberglass batting, stone batting, blown fiberglass or cellulose insulation are all good options based on the application.
How to tell if you have UFFI in the home
If the home is built after 1980 it is highly unlikely that UFFI was used anywhere in the home at all since its use was banned in Canada that year, and ever since. Homes built before 1980, especially older homes that could’ve benefited greatly from increased insulation could have some UFFI which may be indicated by a dark yellow foam found in the basement by looking up into the joist spaces near the exterior walls which may have oozed out the of the exterior wall space during installation. Additionally, any plugs or switches on the exterior walls of the home may have some foam inside the receptacles in the wall. UFFI was installed almost exclusively from the exterior, so a licensed home inspector may notice injection points in the exterior masonry for example, but you may need a trained eye to see them.
Great things came out of the 1970s as my generation can attest to, however, UFFI was not one of them. In my practice, the most common place I used to run up against the issue was when a parent or grandparent was trying to advise a young person or couple about what to look for when they were buying their first home in an older neighborhood. They mean well, but arming folks with the facts apart from the media and public relations hype of the time can help, coupled with the recommendation that they hire a licensed home inspector to help them navigate the home’s condition and issues.
Provincial Practice Advisor
Bryan has many years of experience in the real estate industry including over 10 years as a former broker in the Edmonton Region.
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