I often see people wanting styrofoam ceiling tiles for their homes. The tiles are fairly cheap and effective to use, and they can easily cover those dreadful popcorn ceilings.
But, are styrofoam ceiling tiles safe? In general, styrofoam ceiling tiles are safe. However, they can be harmful in the event of a fire. Fire will cause the styrofoam to burn and melt, and also release toxic gasses.
In this article, I will expand a bit more on the potential dangers of styrofoam ceiling tiles and what you can do to ensure your safety and peace of mind.
Styrofoam is a term used for any extruded polystyrene foam. This means that polystyrene is the actual core material for styrofoam products.
Now, I’m not going to dive into all the scientific properties of polystyrene material. Quite honestly, I don’t understand half of it. However, styrofoam products are fairly safe as far as the material itself goes.
I mean, I’m sure many of you sometimes get a coffee-to-go in a styrofoam cup or eat take-out food from a styrofoam container.
It seems that the only real safety concern with styrofoam products is the flammability of those products. Styrofoam catches flame extremely quickly and melts almost instantly. It can also drip when melting from high places like the ceiling.
Other than hot dripping foam, fumes and gasses also raise safety concerns.
Burning styrofoam will release harmful fumes and gasses that could potentially cause long term effects.
However, technology has come a long way in the past decade. A lot of manufacturers claim to have fire-rated and non-combustible styrofoam tiles today. It’s best you drill your manufacturer (or local store) for this information, especially if you want peace of mind.
The 2 main toxic gasses are listed below. The snippets you see are direct quotes from reputable sources (links provided).
Carbon Monoxide (CO)
Breathing CO can cause headache, dizziness, vomiting, and nausea. If CO levels are high enough, you may become unconscious or die. Exposure to moderate and high levels of CO over long periods of time has also been linked with increased risk of heart disease. People who survive severe CO poisoning may suffer long-term health problems.Source: CDC
Inhaling Styrene Gas can seriously affect the nervous system. These health effects include changes in color vision, tiredness, feeling drunk, slowed reaction time, concentration problems, and balance problems. The styrene concentrations that cause these effects are more than 1,000 times higher than the levels normally found in the environment.Source: ATSDR
It’s easy to get scared or paranoid after reading side effects like quoted above. However, these are generally worst-case scenario effects, only to occur if the gasses are inhaled in very large volumes.
If a fire does actually cause styrofoam tiles (or any other styrofoam products) to burn in your house, extinguish the flame and immediately open your windows and doors to air out the house.
Fire Rating of Styrofoam Ceiling Tiles
Fire ratings can be a bit difficult to understand. People often see some fire-rating stamp on a product and assume it’s completely fire-proof. That’s not necessarily the case I’m afraid.
A fire rating basically determines how long a fire takes to spread. These ratings are measured by testing and scoring a product. You can read this article for more in-depth details about the fire rating procedure. But in a nutshell, the lower the score for a product, the longer it will take for the fire to spread. Class A ratings have the lowest scores (0-25), making this the highest rating.
If you’re planning to purchase styrofoam tiles then make sure to check the package for a fire rating. If you can’t see anything on the package, then ask the store owner for details. I would personally call up the manufacturer directly.
I must admit, it’s been super frustrating trying to find styrofoam tiles with good fire-ratings online. About to throw in the towel, I happened to stumble upon an online store specializing in ceiling tiles and wall panels.
The site has one of those live chat features, so I asked an agent if their styrofoam tiles are fire rated. The agent advised that they are adding special measures to their products, to suppress the spread of flames. Here’s a link to Talissa Decor – I really like their products (I checked the specs and prices of their range).
I was also provided with the video below, that demonstrates the burning of Talissa Decor styrofoam tiles against another brand.
I’m sure there are many other brands out there that are similar. I just thought it would be helpful to find at least one and share it with you.
Fire Retardant Paints
I’ve heard of latex fire-retardant paints working wonders. In fact, someone did an experiment by painting a styrofoam tile with a fire-retardant paint and holding it to a flame. According to him, it didn’t take at all.
I didn’t test this myself, so I’m not in a position to say if it definitely works or not. But it’s worth a shot to try. Again, if you’re in doubt, ask the experts. I always learn so much (that I already thought I knew) by asking the right people the right questions.
I found a fire-retardant paint (Amazon link) and I also managed to find a video of a guy demonstrating this paint. Check it out below.
Most styrofoam tile manufacturers state that the tiles are paintable, so this solution wouldn’t be a problem. You can either use it for extra protection (if your tiles are already fire-rated), or you can use it as a means of adding fire resistance.
Older Styrofoam Ceiling Tiles
I would be very cautious about old styrofoam tiles, especially if moving into a new house that had them previously installed. Some of the older products were manufactured with little or no safety measures in place. Just look at asbestos for example, it was widely used back in the day.
I’m sure you could apply a few coats of fire-retardant paint and everything would be okay, but I would honestly still feel a bit paranoid. If you ask me, I think it’s best to remove the old tiles and replace them with modern tiles. Not only will this give your house a fresher look, but it will also give you peace of mind.
Even though styrofoam is so controversial, I believe there’s little to no harm in using it. You just need to exercise due diligence when making a purchase, to ensure you take the necessary precautions.