Fibreglass safety

If you're keen on DIY - maybe installing roof insulation or working on a boat - you're likely to have come across this material. There are health risks associated with fibreglass, but if you follow the basic safety precautions, these should be minimal.

What is fibreglass?
Fibreglass, as one can guess from the word, is an artificial material made by spinning glass into very thin strands, or fibres. It is then used together with plastics to make lightweight structural materials e.g. in boats and motor vehicles, and to form heat-resistant materials. Fibreglass is also used as an insulation material in many buildings.

What are the health issues?
Because on the face of it fibreglass seems similar to the notorious carcinogen asbestos, which is also a fibrous material, there has long been concern that there may be similar health risks to those associated with inhaling asbestos fibres.

But glass fibres are less durable in lung tissue than asbestos fibres, and evidence has not linked them conclusively with the serious lung conditions acquired by chronic exposure to asbestos.

Properly installed, covered fiberglass products (e.g. insulation) are not considered to pose a health risk. It is only during installation, or when these materials are disturbed or broken (e.g. during renovations) that you need to be concerned.

There is a possibility that long-term exposure to fibres and dust could cause permanent damage to the lungs or airways – as is the risk of chronic inhalation with any foreign particles. However, the exact nature of such damage by fibreglass is not certain. Many commentators on this issue feel that further research needs to be done before fibreglass can be given a clean bill of health.

Direct contact with fibreglass materials or exposure to dust may irritate the skin, eyes and airways, causing a scratchy throat and coughing, and may worsen existing respiratory problems like asthma or bronchitis.

Fumes from resins and other substances used in fibreglass products and installation should be avoided as much as possible, because they may cause respiratory problems such as tight chest, shortness of breath and wheezing. Other possible symptoms, depending on the type of resin, may include eye and nose irritation, headache, dizziness and nausea.

Working safely with fibreglass
It is very important to only work with fibreglass and resins under conditions of good ventilation. If you experience any symptoms, however mild, you should stop working at once and get outside into fresh air. It is also very important to follow the manufacturer's instructions exactly. A dust mask (rated for fibreglass) or respirator is strongly recommended. Other safety tips:

  • Wear loose-fitting clothes with long sleeves and trousers, gloves, goggles and a head covering. You can use duct tape to close the gap at the end of long sleeves and trousers.
  • Don’t rub your skin or eyes if they feel itchy or irritated.
  • After working, wash with soap and running water (a shower is best). Wash your work clothes separately.
  • Keep your work space clean, and wet-wipe or mop surfaces after working. Vacuuming is also good, but don’t sweep – this spreads dust around. Keep fibreglass materials properly stored, and dispose of any scrap.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth, Health24, December 2006

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