In a recently published study on motivations and barriers for energy efficient renovations, the European Climate Foundation (ECF) noted that more than 97% of Europe’s building stock must be upgraded to achieve the 2050 decarbonisation vision. This calls for not only EU and national policies to accelerate investments in energy efficiency but also minimum energy efficiency requirements for existing buildings, the organisation said. Based on surveys conducted in Bulgaria, France, Germany, Poland and Spain, the ECF found that a healthy environment to live in for them and their family is one of the main motivations for homeowners and tenants to carry out energy renovation. Indeed, 76% are completely or also motivated by this factor.
However, when choosing renovation materials, consumers are generally unaware of concerns. There is a particular issue around the choice of insulation material. Insulation plays a significant role in improving energy efficiency. In the past, the common material was asbestos before it became banned in the 1990s due to the serious health hazards posed. Mineral wool (also known as Man-made Vitreous Fibres (MMVF) or by the leading brand name, Rockwool) has effectively emerged as the replacement material. But consumers face a new dilemma as concerns are growing that the health risks associated with mineral wool are comparable with those of asbestos. Dr. Marjolein Drent, professor of Interstitial Lung Diseases at the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at Maastricht University, in the Netherlands, has stated: “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.”
As consumers strive to make their homes more energy-efficient, it would seem that mineral wool, one of the main materials available to them for insulation, is just as dangerous as its predecessor. 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. There are calls for the European Chemicals Agency (ECA), based in Helsinki, to carry out retesting on the product as sold.
It seems possible that mineral wool could eventually face a ban, similar to that which ended the reign of asbestos as a leading insulation material. The current debate centres on what can be done to protect consumers ahead of any re-testing or potential ban, as they strive to make informed choices about which renovation materials to use in their quest for improved energy efficiency. To this end, there are calls for greater protection for those installing, removing or disposing of mineral wool, including the compulsory use of appropriate safety equipment, such as face masks, by construction workers. There are also calls for large, clear product labelling consumers can be informed of the health risks they face and be guided on how to begin to protect themselves.
A London-based construction worker said: “Our teams have suffered skin problems after using mineral wool and we have definitely breathed in these fibres. I find it very worrying that the product was not tested as sold. This means the version of mineral wool that reaches us workers is not what was tested. It makes me feel the real dangers have been hidden from us. And what about the average DIY homeowner who probably takes less precautions even than us construction professionals? I dread to think of the health crisis being stored up.”