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The Not So Great Wall

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[Photo of Drywall]Sulfur fumes from drywall made in China could force thousands of Americans out of their homes

Four walls may not make a home, but if constructed with sub-standard materials, could destroy one. This may be the bitter lesson that up to 100,000 homeowners in the United States will have to learn. The culprit? Drywall made in China.

Two active hurricane seasons and a housing boom created a demand for drywall in the late 2000s, and China was quick to fill that demand, selling some 540 million pounds of the building material to America from 2004-2008 according to shipping records.

What contractors didn't know was that they may also have been importing strontium sulfide mixed into the gypsum that drywall is made of. The Florida Department of Health has found traces of strontium sulfide in some samples they tested, and scientists believe that this may be the source of sulfurous fumes reported in some 3,053 complaints received by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. Formaldehyde, another potential cause of respiratory irritation, was also found in some samples.

While some only complained of the distinct rotten-egg smell of hydrogen sulfide, others have reported difficulty in breathing, headaches, and bloody noses because of the fumes. The fumes have also corroded pipes and copper components in home appliances, most notably in air-conditioning units.

The CPSC is the lead agency in investigating what some have taken to calling the 2009 Chinese drywall controversy, and has been coordinating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to identify the potential health risks from substances in drywall from China.

Meanwhile, hucksters and swindlers have started peddling test kits and ozone air filters to cash in on homeowners' fears. The CPSC has released a warning against “unqualified or dishonest individuals seeking to take advantage of consumers struggling to address this issue,” a sentiment echoed by the Florida Attorney General's office.

While US agencies are scrambling to find a way to deal with problems with Chinese drywall, the National Association of Home Builders offers a more practical solution: tear everything down and build anew. The trade association, with a membership of some 175,000 contractors and builders, notes that federal efforts to resolve the crisis have been to slow. Some families have had to move out of their homes because of contamination, while others have had to live with health and safety risks.

The solution, while simple, will be very painful for most Americans. The NAHB recommends ripping out drywall, and replacing plumbing and electrical wiring that may have been corroded by fumes. It has pushed for home insurers to pay for the relocation of affected families until their homes are repaired and allowed to air. That is, if insurers pay at all.

Insurance companies have refused to pay homeowners for repairs due to Chinese drywall—a bill that could cost the insurance industry up to US$25 billion according to risk management firm Towers Perrin—citing a 'pollution exclusion.'

“A homeowners policy is not designed to repair or replace defective material that a homeowner has installed in their home. You're not purchasing a warranty on a product. You're purchasing coverage on sudden or accidental events that may occur,” says Dick Luedke, spokesman of insurance firm State Farm.

A judge in Louisiana has ruled that the exclusion does not apply since the damage from the defective drywall does not count as 'environmental damage.' This, at least, allows homeowners to sue their insurance companies for their repair costs and medical bills.

Relief, or the hope of it, may also come from class-action suits that have been filed in Florida against three drywall manufacturers affiliated with German drywall firm Knauf Gips KG and one manufacturer not connected to Knauf, Taishan Gypsum Co. Manufacturers, meanwhile, have denied that their products are the source of the contamination, with Taishan Gypsum even adding that they do not export to the US.

With litigation possibly dragging on for months, even years, only two things are clear: many homes, especially in Florida and Louisiana, are virtually uninhabitable, and Chinese manufacturers will have to fight an uphill battle to prove that they can produce quality as well as quantity. /JdS

Print ed: 05/10


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