'Going Green' Doesn't Necessarily Protect Consumers

'Going Green' Doesn't Necessarily Protect Consumers
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Let’s face it: Everyone is going “green.” From reusable shopping bags to hybrid cars, consumers have been persuaded they can do their part to protect the environment by changing their behavior.

That’s the way it should be. The government shouldn’t mandate how we behave or what we buy; instead these matters should be left open to each and every one of us excercising our right to choose in the marketplace.

Having the best of intentions doesn’t alleviate any of us from our responsibilities under the doctrine of caveat emptor: Let the buyer beware. Everyone should do a bit of research before making a change and avoid making assumptions that green is better just because something is labeled environmentally friendly. That doesn’t automatically make a product safer, better performing, or less costly to operate. Many are all of those things but some green, or allegedly green products actually increase consumer risks without them necessarily being aware of the dangers involved.

For some time now America’s housing industry has been going green. Today, homebuilders and renovators are installing a variety of high tech energy saving appliances. They’re also, more and more, using cellulose insulation in an attempt to make homes more energy efficient.

Green advocates back all of it even though the use of cellulose insulation, or chemically treated recycled newsprint may not be all it is cracked up to be.

The Better Business Bureau’s National Advertising Division has dinged a major cellulose manufacturer for using studies from the late 1980s and early 1990s to support claims it has made related to the efficiency of its product. According to the report, the evidence behind such assertions such as “cellulose is from 20 percent to 50 percent more effective than fiberglass” and “cellulose insulation can reduce your utility bill by up to 40 percent” is insufficient to support these claims which are commonly made in industry marketing materials.

That matters because it’s just these kinds of unsubstantiated performance claims that earned glowing endorsements for the material from many green advocates. It’s a concern, obviously, but not nearly so much as the now uncertain claims made about cellulose insulation’s safety and toxicity.

On some promotional materials the producers of cellulose insulation claim boric acid – the second largest ingredient, added as a fire retardant – lowers the risk of some cancers and is six times less toxic than table salt.
That not what the National Institutes of Health thinks. It’s a dangerous substance, so much so that The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration classified it “hazardous” under the Hazard Communications Standard. A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services toxicology study identified boric acid as a reproductive toxin.

A 2006 joint study by HHS and NIH on cellulose insulation exposure in the workplace concluded the research on any association of cellulose insulation and respiratory disease in humans insufficient. One would hope the lack of any epidemiological studies would prevent the industry from making outlandish claims regarding non-carcinogenicity but that’s not where things seem to be going.

The red flags don’t stop there. Per OSHA protocols workers that install cellulose insulation are required to wear dust respirators and other protective gear when handling the material. You don’t have to think too hard about that to conclude the material is dangerous in some form or fashion. Just ask Dirty Job’s Mike Rowe, who tackled the subject on an episode of his hit TV show.

Contrary to claims from cellulose insulation manufacturers, it is also not the “cure all” for preventing residential fires. Federal government safety agencies require cellulose manufacturers to label their products as fire hazards. Since 2016, there have been multiple fires attributed to cellulose insulation around the country. These fires, including those in Waterloo, Iowa; Carroll, Iowa; East Lansing; Rexburg, Idaho; Gladwin, Michigan; Asheville, North Carolina; Kinston, North Carolina; Limerick, Pennsylvania; Layton, Utah; Burtchville, Michigan; and Yuba City, California, have destroyed homes and apartment buildings alike and left families devastated.

Increasing the energy efficiency of the home is a smart idea but not one that should come at the expense of your safety. Consumers deserve to know what they’re putting into their homes. The cellulose insulation folks need to clean up their act.

Peter Roff is a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report.  

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