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.

| January/February 2003

  • Debra Lynn Dadd
  • Brian Dunbar
  • Edith Cecil

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?


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.

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