November 15, 2018

Fiber Glass Health and Safety: Understanding the Research

Fiber glass is one of the most studied man-made substances on the planet, and there are dozens of studies specifically designed to determine whether fiber glass poses any health hazard to humans. These third-party studies have produced a robust body of scientific evidence supporting the safety of fiber glass in air handling applications.  However, despite the evidence supporting both its safety and performance, there are still some lingering fears about the safety of fiber glass. Primarily:

  1. A belief that insulation glass fibers are potentially carcinogenic.
  2. Whether or not fiber glass products can withstand prolonged exposure to an airstream without eroding.

These perceptions come from the initial fiber glass research that exposed test animals to glass fibers through surgical implantation into the abdomen rather than through inhalation. Clearly this is a route of exposure that would never be encountered in the real world, and it bypasses all the natural defense mechanisms inherent to the human body. The results of these tests indicated that fiber glass could pose a potential health hazard.

Despite the flaws these test methods, they were the sole source of fiber glass safety research for many years.  In the absence of well-designed animal inhalation studies, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined that these artificial implantation studies provided sufficient evidence to list fiber glass as a “possible carcinogen” in 1987.

Since these studies did not accurately replicate typical fiber glass exposure, Johns Manville voluntarily took responsibility to lead the industry in studying the potential health effects of respirable glass fibers. We helped pioneer the efforts and were soon joined by the rest of the biggest names in the fiber glass industry in our endeavor to scientifically determine whether or not fiber glass presented any health hazard to humans. These studies required scientists to create innovative exposure methods that could accurately replicate actual inhalation exposure environments all in order to fully understand the interactions between fiber glass and live animal lung tissue.

The findings confirmed that  insulation glass fibers dissolve in the lungs relatively quickly, removing any potential for the chronic inflammation that could lead to ill effects on the lungs.

The collaborative effort between the industry’s biggest fiber glass producers to test the safety of fiber glass ultimately led to a partnership between OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and NAIMA, the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association. They partnered to create the Health and Safety Partnership Program (HSPP) in 1995. As a public-private partnership, the HSPP was able to draw upon the wealth of expertise in the insulation industry under the watchful eye of OSHA, providing unbiased  information about the health and safety of fiber glass.

The study of fiber glass didn’t just stop at inhalation studies. There were a series of additional studies that explored a variety of different facets of fiber glass exposure:

  • Human epidemiology studies: The human epidemiology studies explored the mortality rates in fiber glass manufacturing plant workers. Researchers studied the death records of deceased plant workers to determine the cause of death and compared that to the general population. These data account for nearly one million person-years of exposure to fiber glass.1Findings: Individuals who worked in early fiber glass manufacturing plants (1945-1995) and who were exposed to much higher levels of fiber glass fibers showed no statistically significant increase in respiratory system cancer or non-cancer respiratory disease.
  • Exposure to inhalable glass fiber in indoor manufacturing and commercial settings: This study was performed to determine the concentration of organic and inorganic (such as fiber glass) airborne fibers in both commercial and residential indoor environments.2Findings: The results of these tests revealed extremely low airborne fiber concentrations in commercial and residential environments, averaging less than 0.008 fibers per cubic centimeter. More importantly, 97% of the fibers found actually came from organic sources, like drapes or curtains, not from fiber glass. Thus the concentration of glass fibers in commercial and residential settings was less than 0.0001 fibers per cubic centimeter.
  • Resistance to erosion under extreme air velocities: At JM, we test our primary commercial and residential duct products to extremes to meet stringent UL-181 requirements. This means that they must be able to withstand air velocities up to 12,000 feet per minute or more. These products are exposed to hurricane-force winds and air velocities that are three times faster than what would typically be found in any duct system.3Findings: Even in such extreme environments, JM’s fiber glass insulation does not show any signs of cracking, breaking, peeling, flaking, erosion, or delamination.

The findings in each of these studies further confirm that the fiber glass used in JM’s air handling products does not pose any respiratory health hazard to humans, and that there is a relative absence of fiber glass fibers in non-occupational settings.

If you would like to have more information about the details of this research and the subsequent findings, we encourage you to sign up for our live webinar, “The Health and Safety of Fiber Glass,” on April 12 at 2:00pm ET/ 11:00am PT, hosted by Bruce Ray, Johns Manville’s Associate General Counsel for Regulatory & Governmental Affairs.

Sources:

  1. “Historical Cohort Study of US Man-Made Vitreous Fiber Production Workers: 1.” Marsh, et al. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Volume 43, Number 9 (September 2001)
  2. “A Synthetic Vitreous Fiber (SVF) Occupational Exposure Databse: Implementing the SVF Health and Safety Partnership Program.” Gary E. Marchant, et al. http://insulationinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/RP062.pdf
  3. SuperDuct RC Data Sheet: http://www.jm.com/content/dam/jm/global/en/hvac-insulation/HVAC-document…

Related posts