Mother Earth Living

Eco-Experts Answer Your Questions

The eco-experts discuss the dangers of lead paint, asbestos, teflon while answering reader's questions about wood paneling, mattresses and wood stoves.
By Natural Home Editorial Board
January/February 2003
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Brian Dunbar
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Advice from Our Board Members

Hardboard paneling

We’re moving into a house with walls covered in fake wood paneling, which has a cardboard-like, woody composite backing. Could this be asbestos? If not, is there a significant amount of outgassing from this product? ­Replacing it would be expensive, as there is no ­drywall underneath (just fiberglass insulation). Would painting the ­paneling with a nontoxic paint seal in any harmful substances?

—YOLANDE NORRIS, VANCOUVER, BC

Brian Dunbar replies:

Your paneling is likely a “hardboard” panel—finely ground wood fibers bound together with heat and pressure. According to the American Hardboard Association, most hardboard paneling products are nearly 100 percent wood fiber. Small amounts of natural and synthetic materials may be added to enhance stiffness, durability, finishing properties, and resistance to moisture. Hardboard is typically one-quarter-inch thick and may have a wire screen backing. The boards are grooved and painted or laminated with preprinted paper to resemble authentic wood paneling.

Although many construction materials manufactured before 1974 contain a form of asbestos, our research did not uncover any hardboard paneling that was manufactured with asbestos. We spoke with Stan Lebow at the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Products Lab, and also with a spokesman at the American Hardboard Association. Neither was aware of any hardboard panel products containing asbestos. The only sure way to determine if asbestos is present is to have the material tested at a local environmental engineering lab. Such tests typically cost $50 to $80.

If your panels were manufactured with any toxic substances, the quantity of outgassing chemicals is probably negligible because of their age, and therefore painting the paneling would probably not improve the indoor air quality. If you want to paint for aesthetic reasons, use a nontoxic paint that adheres well to the board. Incidentally, if you do remove the paneling in the future, use extreme caution in handling the fiberglass insulation, which is known to cause skin and breathing irritation.

For further information, visit www.hardboard.org. For further information on asbestos, visit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website at www.epa.gov/asbestos.

BRIAN DUNBAR, LEED Professional, NCIDQ, Associate AIA, is director of the Institute for the Built Environment and associate professor of construction management and technology at Colorado State University. He is a member of the AIA’s Committee on the Environment, the Interior Design Educators Council and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

John Mlade, graduate research assistant with the Institute for the Built Environment, also contributed to this response.

Safe soot removal

How can I safely clean black soot off the glass of my woodstove door?

—MORGAN FAIRCLIFF, VIA E-MAIL

Debra Lynn Dadd replies:

First, check the manufacturer’s instructions to make sure that the cleaner or the method will not ­invalidate any warranty, which may require a specialty fireplace and ­woodstove glass cleaner. If you must use such a product, check the label carefully for warnings and contact the ­manufacturer for a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS).

Safer methods of soot removal are also effective. Try building a hotter fire to burn off the soot buildup, or clean the glass with a damp newspaper dipped in cold ashes. I’ve tried this—it really works! I love that this method uses one waste product to clean up another.

Ordinary glass cleaners do not ­effectively remove soot, but natural orange-based cleaners advertise that they will. For safety and best results, make sure the glass is cool before you clean it. Teflon

Teflon-coated mattresses

We bought a mattress recently, and the salesperson asked us if we wanted it Teflon-coated for stain protection. Should we be concerned about outgassing?

—HELEN STARKWEATHER, VIA E-MAIL

Debra Lynn Dadd replies:

Teflon is the trade name for ­polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). It belongs to the “thermoplastics” family, all of which outgas. Further, when Teflon is burned, it releases toxic ­hydrogen ­fluoride fumes. The material safety data sheet (MSDS) warns ­firefighters to wear “self-contained breathing ­apparatus and full protective equipment” when fighting this type of fire.

DuPont, the manufacturer of Teflon, states on its website that of the billions of pots and pans coated with Teflon, the company knows of “no serious, chronic, or acute health problems related to their use.” But it also says, “In cases where the non-stick coating is grossly overheated (over 500 degrees Fahrenheit), fumes may produce temporary flu-like symptoms.”

Years ago I heard reports of pet birds dying after breathing fumes from Teflon-coated cooking pans. This made me think of the miners who used to take canaries into the mines to warn them of the presence of deadly gases. Are our feathered friends telling us something?

So is a Teflon-coated mattress a bad thing? Body heat certainly isn’t enough to release hazardous fumes. I wouldn’t put this high on the list of toxic dangers in the home, but it is a material that some people may be sensitive to.

DEBRA LYNN DADD is an internationally known expert on healthy home environments and author of Home, Safe Home (Putnam, 1997).

Lead paint

I am purchasing a turn-of-the-century home and have not yet had it tested for lead-based paint. Some have said it’s best not to disturb the painted surfaces or the lead dust could end up coating everything, including the outdoor ground. Others suggest that it’s best to completely eliminate the lead by ­scraping, sandblasting, etc. What really is the best (and most cost-effective) method for reducing the danger from lead-based paint?

—TAMARA, VIA E-MAIL

Edith Vanderbilt Cecil replies:

If your home was built before 1978, it’s likely that lead-based paint was used on a portion of it. Lead-based paint is poisonous, and lead particles are ­harmful—particularly for children—if swallowed or inhaled. Exposure can cause central nervous system disorders, digestive problems, and muscle and joint pain.

Fortunately, a great deal of research has been done on lead-based paint “abatement,” a term that signifies the importance of following safe procedures. It’s also true that the information available is somewhat contradictory. My ­suggestion is to follow the advice of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). There are several excellent sources of information available on the EPA’s ­website. Their pamphlet Protect Your Family from Lead in Your Home (www.epa.gov/opptintr/lead/leadpdfe.pdf) was developed for contractors to educate homeowners about lead abatement. Reducing Lead Hazards When ­Remodeling Your Home (www.epa.gov/ lead/rrpamph.pdf), is an excellent resource guide that will answer many of your questions, and includes a listing of ­individual State Lead Program contact numbers. These state agencies can help you find an authorized lead abatement firm in your area, as well as possible sources of financial aid for reducing lead hazards. If you do not have access to the Internet, contact the National Lead Information Center at (800) 424-5323.

EDITH VANDERBILT CECIL is Vice President for Professional Exchange and Community Outreach at the Institute of International Education in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, she was Director of Washington D.C. Operations for Concurrent Technologies Corporation. She was also the Founding Executive Director of the United States Environmental Training Institute.


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