Concerns have been growing about the health risks of mineral wool (also known as Man-made Vitreous Fibres (MMVF), or by the brand name Rockwool). A report was published last year that summarised these concerns in terms of health risks to homeowners and those working to install, remove or dispose of mineral wool as an insulation material from homes. Protests in the US and France over new mineral wool plants drew attention to even more risks, this time associated with the health hazards for those living near to mineral wool factories. What is this material and what are the risks? Here we publish a guide to what is known so far:
What is mineral wool?
Mineral wool insulation is made from molten glass, stone or slag (industrial waste) that is spun into a fibre-like structure.
Why do we use it?
Mineral wool’s predecessor was asbestos. Mineral wool was a replacement for asbestos after that substance became banned. For a long time, asbestos was used as an insulation material. Asbestos was discovered to be dangerous in 1900 following a death from pulmonary fibrosis and asbestos was found in the victim’s lungs. The asbestos industry played down the risks and managed to keep their product on the market for almost 100 years. When it was finally banned in most countries in the 1990s, mineral wool emerged as the replacement material.
What are the health concerns with mineral wool?
Dr. Marjolein Drent, a lung disease expert Maastricht University, in the Netherlands, summarised the situation: “The effects of the fibres of glass wool and stone wool can be compared to those of asbestos. In the past we did not know asbestos was very dangerous. The results of the effects of fibres in glass wool and mineral wool are only being seen right now, so we must deal with it carefully.The point is that these substances are harmful, but people do not realise it sufficiently, and that is something we have to worry about. It is too easily accepted that ‘we have a replacement for asbestos’. But the replacement may not be as good as we thought it was at the beginning, there is insufficient attention given to this fact.”
If it is so risky, why can we buy it in a DIY store?
The answer to this question lies in the method used for testing mineral wool. Mineral wool was originally classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Agency on the Research on Cancer (IARC) as carcinogenic and hazardous to humans. The mineral wool industry then altered the composition of their product, which then underwent further tests. In 2002 mineral wool was declassified as a carcinogen. However, it has now emerged that the product as tested was different from that which is commercially available, in that an important ‘binder’ had been removed.
Why are there protests in the US?
There have been public protests in the United States against the building of a Rockwool facility in Ranson, Jefferson County, West Virginia. The factory will produce mineral wool and the Board of Education formally asked Rockwool to halt its construction plans until results from an independent Human Health Risk assessment are received. The Board expressed serious concerns in regard to air quality, pollution and child safety. According to a report by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the chemicals to potentially be emitted from two 21-story tall smoke stacks include formaldehyde, sulphur-dioxide, lead, carbon monoxide, soot, large and small particulate matter and sulphuric acid. A planned plant in France met with a similar public reaction.
What can be done about mineral wool health risks?
There is a clear cut case for re-testing to ensure that this time the material is tested as it is actually sold, with the binder included. It seems possible that mineral wool could eventually face a ban, similar to that imposed on its cousin, asbestos. In the meantime, there are some protection measures that could be considered to try and reduce interim risks for those installing, removing or disposing of mineral wool. Compulsory use of appropriate safety equipment, such as face masks, by construction workers is one interim measure that has been suggested. Large, clear product labelling is another, so that users can be informed of the health risks they face and be guided on how to begin to protect themselves.
What is the likely outcome?
The history of asbestos is still very fresh in our collective conscience. We are still reading regularly about asbestos-related illness and deaths and the ensuing court cases. It is well known that there was gap of almost 100 years between the discovery in Charing Cross Hospital that asbestos was deadly when a young man died there in 1902 of pulmonary fibrosis and a ban finally arriving in the 1990s. It seems impossible that any such gap will be allowed in the case of mineral wool. There are clear health concerns and it is difficult to imagine that policymakers will allow the material to continue to be used by construction workers and homeowners.