What is fiberglass?

Fiberglass, which is man-made, consists of numerous extremely fine fibers of glass and is commonly used as insulating material. Fiberglass is used in home and building insulation, electrical insulation, cement and plastic reinforcement, thermal and acoustic insulation, and for heat resistance. It is also used to make light-weight materials. In the school setting, fiberglass is typically used in walls, ceilings, ceiling tiles, and for the insulation of ventilation ducts.

Fiberglass can enter the environment from the manufacture, use, and disposal of fiberglass-containing materials. Damaged or disturbed materials, such as fiberglass insulation, may release fibers into the air. Airborne fiberglass may eventually settle with other airborne particles as a part of dust.

How can I be exposed to fiberglass?

A person may be exposed to fiberglass by breathing, ingestion, or skin contact. Occupational exposure is expected to be highest among workers who install or remove insulation or are routinely involved in building maintenance and repair. People who work with fiberglass should wear protective clothing, gloves, and safety glasses with side shields, as well as a particulate respirator. Non-occupational exposures, such as that experienced in your home, office, or school, would likely vary depending on the condition and movement of fiberglass-containing materials and airflow within the building or room.

Individuals may be exposed to fiberglass through home maintenance work or by moving materials containing fiberglass. Once fiberglass is installed in buildings, exposure to fiberglass is unlikely, unless the material is disturbed during renovations or other activities. The best way to avoid exposure to fiberglass particles is to avoid disturbing or contacting insulation material in attics or walls.

How can fiberglass affect my health?

When a person inhales fiberglass, larger fibers may be trapped in the upper airway. Smaller fibers may be inhaled deep into the lungs. Inhaled fibers are removed from the body partially through sneezing or coughing, and through the body's defense mechanisms. Fiberglass that reaches the lungs may remain in the lungs or the thoracic region. Ingested fiberglass is removed from the body via feces.

Short-term Exposure

Direct contact with fiberglass or breathing airborne dust containing fiberglass may irritate the skin, eyes, nose, and throat. The symptoms of irritation are often nonspecific, temporary, and may include itching, coughing, or wheezing. High levels of exposure to airborne fiberglass may aggravate existing asthma or bronchitis-like conditions.

Long-term Exposure

In 2000, the National Academy of Sciences reviewed studies of fiberglass manufacturing workers and concluded that " fibers do not appear to increase the risk of respiratory system cancer." In 2001, the International Agency for Research on Cancer said that "glass wool", which is a form of fiberglass, is not classifiable as a human carcinogen. Deaths from lung diseases, including lung cancer and mesothelioma, in groups of workers involved in the manufacture of glass wool, are not consistently different from what is found in the United States general population.

Are there guidelines for limiting workplace exposure to fiberglass?

Yes, in 1999, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the manufacturers (the National Insulation Association, and The Insulation Contractors Association of America) established a voluntary workplace exposure limit for breathable glass fibers. The agreement, supported by the National Academy of Sciences, establishes relevant glass fiber dimensions and states that within an eight-hour workday, a worker shouldn't be exposed to more than one breathable glass fiber per cubic centimeter of air. Additional information can be found at OSHA's exposure limits for synthetic mineral fibers.

Content Source: Indoor Air Quality Program