Chinese-made drywall causing home and health hazards

Consumer Reports News: March 19, 2009 03:45 PM

A gut-turning smell like rotten eggs hit Richard and Patricia Kampf the day they first walked into their new house in Cape Coral, Florida, in July 2007. At first they thought it was some kind of “new home” smell that would go away quickly. Patricia bought some scented candles to help cover the odor.

But the smell didn’t go away and other strange things started happening. The metal coil on the central air conditioner turned black and then became so badly corroded it had to be replaced after just a few months. The mirrors in the bathrooms turned black. The Kampfs had to replace the motherboard on their computer three times and their son’s Xbox stopped working—after two repairs they bought a new one.

And then there were the headaches and the nosebleeds. The only time the symptoms subsided was when they were away from the house. Their son, who had always been the picture of health, was sickened for a week by an upper respiratory attack.

After replacing the air conditioner coil several times, the air conditioner company told them their problem was likely the drywall that had been installed in their new home during construction. The Kampfs were astonished.

Similar things were happening in a lot of homes, the air conditioner company told them. The drywall had been imported from China and was giving off metal-corroding gases. It had been used in a lot of new homes during the past few years, they were told.  “This was our dream house – the place we were retiring to,” says Richard. “But it has been nothing but a nightmare. We really don’t know what we are going to do.”

The Kampfs are far from alone. The federal government is now ramping up a multi-agency investigation of drywall imported from China that is suspected of releasing sulfur gases believed to be causing the corrosion and health problems.

Until recently the drywall problems had been found mainly in Florida, but a Washington, D.C.-based research group that works on class action lawsuits, America’s Watchdog, says it is now getting complaints from California, Arizona, Ohio, Texas, Louisiana, Nevada, the Carolinas, Georgia, Mississippi, Virginia and other states.

A number of class-action lawsuits have recently been filed in Florida, where some builders are moving residents out of their homes and replacing suspect drywall. But the Kampfs say their builder recently told them it was not responsible for fixing the problem.

The drywall used in U.S. homes has traditionally been made in this country, but that changed beginning in 2004 as first a building boom and then rebuilding made necessary by hurricanes Katrina and Rita depleted domestic supplies.

A spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission says the agency has been looking into possible defects surrounding drywall imported from China for the last two months and has now initiated a formal compliance investigation. “The agency is on the ground in Florida in a fact-finding mode,” says CPSC spokesman Joe Martyak. “Our goal is to determine if, and to what extent, there is any safety risk involved with imported Chinese drywall.”

Martyak says the CPSC is working on the investigation with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Florida Department of Health. He says the CPSC has received a “handful” of complaints about the drywall beginning late last year. Martyak says the agency has received no reports of fires.

The Florida Department of Health says it has received more than 140 complaints from homeowners and is still trying to determine if the drywall is causing serious health problems. The health department is featuring a series of photos on its Web site to help homeowners identify suspect drywall.

America’s Watchdog says the suspect drywall is being found in homes built or remodeled since 2004. Among the indicators:

  • The home may have a slight or strong, sulfur, rotten egg or even acid type smell.
  • Air conditioning coils, stove top and oven elements, and refrigerators may be failing at an unusually high rate—often within a year or less.
  • Silver jewelry or silver wedding plates or flatware may be tarnishing within months or even weeks. Mirrors might turn black.
  • Since moving into the house, a homeowner or family member may have experienced symptoms of severe allergies, nose bleeds, or upper respiratory problems. If that person leaves the home for an extended period of time, these symptoms may disappear.

The Herald Tribune of Sarasota  recently reported that at least 550 million pounds of Chinese drywall have come through U.S. ports since 2006, according to a review of shipping records conducted by the newspaper. That’s enough to build at least 60,000 homes, according to the paper.

The drywall problems are having a negative impact on an already troubled real estate market in Florida, according to USA Today and reports in several newspapers in the Sunshine State. Some would-be home buyers are backing out of contracts.

Richard Kampf says he is worried the corroded wiring poses a fire hazard. “It’s really scary,” he says. “I don’t even want to think about what this has done to the value of our house. It’s awful.”—Bob Williams

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