What’s in a name? The name that we give a product shapes how we view it. When we order a glass of champagne, we know we are getting the real deal, a genuine glass from the area surrounding Reims in France and a certain quality. There are rules surrounding this and other sparkling wine producers cannot claim to be champagne. But there are some products where the commonly used name is confusing and even misleading. An example of this is Manmade Vitreous Fibres (MMVF) or, as it is commonly called, mineral wool.
When one is choosing an insulation product, it is easy to hear the phrase ‘mineral wool’ and perhaps conjure up in one’s mind a product that is natural and organic. Just separate the two words ‘mineral’ and ‘wool’. Each word alone triggers a positive image of something natural. Put them together and the effect is amplified. But the reality is that this name is quite misleading. Anyone who has actually handled this substance will have found it far from natural or organic. In fact it is made from molten glass, stone or slag (industrial waste) that is spun into a fibre-like structure. It does not sound quite so woolly, when we focus on the true nature of the material. But by that point, it is probably too late. They have already made the insulation choice for their attic.
Concerns have been growing about mineral wool, or to give it its more correct name, Manmade Vitreous Fibres (MMVF) in terms of possible health risks. 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. Health concerns mentioned included carcinogenicity and lung disease, including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), as well as skin irritation.
Dr. Marjolein Drent, a lung disease expert Maastricht University, in the Netherlands, has 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.”
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.
Questions have been asked about why construction workers are still asked to handle MMVF/mineral wool as part of their work and why a homeowner can buy it in his or her local DIY store. To understand why it is still on the market, we have to go back to 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.
So it can be seen that the benign sounding name of ‘mineral wool’ is somewhat misleading. Perhaps it would be better to use the formal term Man-made Vitreous Fibres (MMVF), as this name seems closer to being an accurate description of a product that at the very least needs to be re-tested, this time as sold with the binder included that was removed in the tests that led to it losing its ‘carcinogenic and hazardous to humans’ label. The way we describe it is important, as it shapes the way consumers think about it and might encourage them to inform themselves of any potential risks to their health. The prevalence of MMVF insulation in our housing and the fact that construction workers and homeowners handle it, sometimes without proper protection, is an issue we should seriously review.