Health News Digest

October 19, 2009

Hiding In The Walls:  A Look At Chinese Drywall Issues

Chinese drywall damage

By  Michael D. Shaw

Following the active hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005, there was an upsurge in home construction. Demand for drywall exceeded the domestic supply, and a certain amount of drywall was imported from China. In June, 2008, the State of Florida’s Department of Health received its first call from a homeowner regarding sulfur odors related to drywall. By December, 2008, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) received its first drywall-related complaints, and became the lead federal agency on this matter.

Most of what the CPSC was hearing involved obnoxious odors emanating from the drywall; corrosion of metal items inside the home—especially copper air conditioning coils; and short-term health effects usually related to the upper respiratory tract. At this point, the CPSC has received about 1,500 reports from residents in 27 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico who believe their health symptoms or the corrosion of certain metal components in their homes are related to the presence of drywall produced in China.

Florida and Louisiana have logged the majority of complaints, with 74% and 17% respectively. Third on the list is Virginia at three percent. CPSC provides an online consumer drywall complaint reporting form. While consumer complaints to CPSC and the state of Florida started in 2008, examination of many of the on-site inspection reports prepared by CPSC shows that the problems were noticed by the homeowners as early as the summer of 2006.

A research paper entitled “Identification of Odor-Active Organic Sulfur Compounds in Gypsum Products” was published in the June, 2009 issue of Clean Soil Air Water. One of the findings was that suspect Chinese drywall, as well as the source gypsum ore, produced unpleasant sulfur-like odors, when compared to non-Chinese samples.

In this work, the boards were subjected to rigorous laboratory testing, in which 57 odor-active compounds were detected and identified. Of these, 35 contained sulfur, and 27 of them had not been reported before in building products. CPSC staff confirmed that the Chinese samples studied originated from the LuNeng mine, located in ShanDong province. In 2006 and earlier, this mine was the only source of gypsum used by the principal exporter of drywall.

Tests run by EPA’s Environmental Response Team in Edison, NJ—released in May, 2009—compared Chinese drywall samples to domestically produced product. Among other findings, levels of sulfur and strontium were shown to be significantly higher in the Chinese drywall.

Inasmuch as corrosive sulfide in homes could derive from a source other than the drywall—such as sewer gas; etiology of health effects is extremely difficult to prove; and psychosomatic symptoms are not unknown in similar situations; it soon became clear that the “Chinese drywall problem” would be extremely complex. Add to the mix that no insurance company is paying claims on this sort of loss, and although there are many lawsuits extant, most defendants can credibly state that they too are victims in all of this.

US Building Consultants, Inc., based in Gainesville, Florida, got into the Chinese drywall matter early, and is working—along with other interested parties—to create a testing protocol with prestigious ASTM International. CEO Spiderman Mulholland (he got his name for scaling impossible structures, and although it was originally a nickname, he eventually took it as his legal name) brings the zeal of an ex-Marine into his work. He relates personal observations of health effects…

“I personally found myself leaving clients’ homes and breaking down in tears. I have investigated and taken part in over ten different hurricane recovery efforts with hundreds of buildings and homes over two decades in Florida but I don’t know if I have investigated anything as difficult to deal with as the Chinese Drywall Crisis.”

“The smell of out-gassing sulfur poured out from [the child’s] walls and I know he had no idea what may be happening to him. What made it worse, I didn’t even know what the effects of these toxic gases played on the long term health effects. All I knew is when the seven of us with US Building Consultants walked into the home to do the testing on the home that day, five got sick with headaches, burning eyes, breathing and throat irritation, and one person who cut out the drywall could not function well the next morning. If we were so affected by the out-gassing during several hours of inspection, what was happening to the family who was being exposed every day?”

Another early entrant in this space is Sarasota, Florida based Foreman and Associates, Inc. Founder Michael Foreman has worked with hundreds of affected homeowners, and confirms the still sometimes questioned notion that the sulfide gases from the drywall are absorbed into studs, concrete, and household goods. Foreman told me that back in 1999, a consignment of Chinese drywall and drywall joint compound was turned back at a Florida port because the compound contained asbestos.

Foreman knows of a home plagued by Chinese drywall that dates back to 2001, in which the owners were well-compensated by the now defunct builder, who was quite aware of the problems when the homes were being constructed. Foreman, like Mulholland, has developed testing and remediation protocols.

Finally, a promising technology may be emerging from Sabre Technical Services, of Slingerlands, New York. Sabre is known for its work with chlorine dioxide in cleaning up anthrax-infested buildings. Spokesman John Mason notes that chlorine dioxide can penetrate drywall and will remove the sulfides in the board, and anywhere else they may have migrated.

Estimates of affected homes range from 60,000 to more than 300,000, and some are terming this the worst environmental disaster in US history. We hope that good old American ingenuity can find us a way out of this mess.