In with the new


On my knees, pumping air into my flat tire at the $1 air supply at Exit 3, I started to experience a sinking feeling. Although my 2-year-old son, who is much more creative than me, having not learned everything that he is supposed to say, would have probably deemed it a "hissing feeling," if he had been there.

When you’ve got a big hole in your tire, you quickly reach a point when pushing compressed air in only results in that much air letting itself out the back door.

That’s exactly the point when I hopped in the truck and gunned it over to Sonny’s to get the diagnosis from Dave, or in this case, the cause of death (unsolved: mysterious bubble-sized hole).

As I take over this column from my colleague Alex Wilson, who kindly passed it to me after five years of good care (including a little help from me when he was on a bike sabbatical), I hope that the "in with the new" experience here for our loyal readers is more uplifting and constructive than the hissing feeling I had an hour ago at Exit 3.

Please email me at with your feedback, questions, and idea so that I can help with your energy and sustainability solutions.

Today I have another in-with-the-new story to illustrate the hazards of regime change.

A lot of people are waking up to the fact that a few of the chemicals and materials we put in our buildings aren’t ones that you’d really invite into your home, if they knocked on the front door. But usually they come in uninvited and unheralded: plasticizers to keep flooring soft, mildewcides to keep stuff from growing mold, and flame retardants to keep it from catching on fire.

It’s the last one of these that concerns us today: the plastic foams we like to use for rigid insulation burn about as readily as you might expect aerated plastic would burn if exposed to flame, and they require pounds of pounds of chemicals to arrest that flame in order to pass safety tests.

Polyisocyanurate, or polyiso insulation, the foil-faced stuff you see a lot on the outsides of homes is one of these. It’s also commonly applied to flat roofs on commercial buildings and schools, and it’s loaded with TCPP, a halogenated phosphate, for fire-resistance.

But TCPP has been a growing concern among building professionals advocating for getting toxic chemicals out of insulation and other materials. TCPP is a suspected carcinogen and is being investigated for genotoxicity and reproductive toxicity; toxicity screening in the European Union has shown it to be potentially persistent in the environment. TCPP is a halogenated chemical, meaning that it’s made with chlorine or bromine; these compounds often have high risk of environmental persistence and toxicity.

In this space in December, Alex presented a green wish list for 2014; the first of seven wishes was for rigid insulation with no halogenated flame retardants and insignificant global warming potential. Partly in response to that urging, insulation manufacturer Johns Manville (JM) today introduced ENERGY 3.E, a polyisocyanurate roofing insulation that has been reformulated to eliminate the TCPP.

The new product will be available right away by special order -- with about a 14-day lead time, according to Christopher Griffin, Ph.D., a technical director and business leader at Johns Manville Roofing Systems. Griffin told us that the substitute flame retardant is a non-halogenated organo-phosphonate monomer. The product meets Class A fire-rating requirements -- the key threshold for use in buildings.

There’s just one problem: we don’t really know what the new chemical is, or whether it’s any good for us. According to Griffin, the chemical has been around for 50 years, though not widely used for this purpose until recently. He acknowledged that "there’s limited toxicology data," but still was able to claim that "It’s pretty benign."

While the move away from TCPP appears to be a positive one, the unknowns about the new chemical leave some concerns, ones that we hope will be addressed as the broader industry has time to study JM’s move. Use of phosphonates has a long history and ranges from widespread inclusion in household cleaners (replacing harmful phosphates) and pharmaceuticals; some are used to accelerate plant fruiting (Etephon) and others to kill plants (Round-Up). Without knowing more about the exact formulation of the compound, it’s hard to judge its hazard potential.

That was underlined for me by Ruthann Rudel, director of research for the Silent Spring Institute, who told me that the chemical is "understudied." She said, "It’s hard to anticipate if there will be health problems" when there is so little data. (Ruthann does really interesting work studying the chemicals that show up in your household dust, but that’s another story.)

I give JM credit for the innovation, and my bet is that it will overall be a safer one, and less apt to pollute our buildings. It’s also fantastic that JM responded to environmental concern in creating the new formulation. They think the current product is safe, but after hearing concerns from Alex and others, they were willing to try something new. Let’s see how it’s supported by the market.

Oh, about that -- the new polyiso is twice as expensive as the old, though still cheaper per R-value than another alternative, rigid mineral wool. Part of the cost increase comes from the higher cost of the flame retardant, and part of it is due to the process change. As long as the new foam is a niche product, the company has to interrupt a production run of standard polyiso to produce the new material; there are costs associated to shutting down and switching over the production line. JM says it hopes to bring the cost down soon.

Despite the concerns, let’s hope that the new polyiso, this column, and the new tire just fitted on my truck all stand the test of time.

(Thanks to my colleagues Paula Melton and Alex Wilson for working with me to report this news from JM.)

Tristan Roberts is Editorial Director at BuildingGreen, Inc., in Brattleboro, Vermont, which publishes information on green building solutions. You can learn more at You can reach Tristan at


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