The defective Chinese drywall situation in the United States first came to light in November of 2008, when the Herald Tribune reported that homeowners in the Sarasota-Bradenton area of Florida were discovering that their homes’ sheetrock walls were eating away the wiring.
In fact, the problem may predate 2008, as witness the symptoms in a Manatee County home suffering the same mysterious meltdown in wiring, yet built in 2002.
Homeowners are suffering not only the loss of their electrical connectivity (and appliances), but also from a range of upper respiratory symptoms, nosebleeds and headaches, yet so far the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, or CPSC – the chief agency dedicated to identifying the problem and formulating a solution – is no closer to helping than it was in February, when it launched its investigation.
But the current health problems, serious as they are, are nothing to what will happen when affected homes are ruled uninhabitable – as they may well be – and gutted, or the structures torn down and the drywall hauled to local landfills, as has already happened with Miami-based Lennar, a home builder which recently replaced the drywall in 80 homes in Southwest Florida and hauled the toxic remains to a local landfill.
“When this gets into water tables in flat areas of the country that get a lot of rain, like Florida, the health problems will multiply as people begin to drink the toxic water,” Notes M. Thomas Martin, president of America’s Watchdog, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer protection advocacy group.
“There haven’t been any health studies yet, of course, so we don't know the ultimate effects of exposure. But I don’t think it's a stretch to say that the future health ramifications, for both humans and wildlife, are going to be far reaching and very serious.”
It is, Martin notes, a situation which parallels Hurricane Katrina (and the now-legendary formaldehyde trailers) but promises to be even more costly and unfortunate, since Katrina involved only 76,000 homes and the Chinese drywall situation impacts at least an estimated 150,000 homes in Florida alone, or about 1,000 in the D.R. Horton and Engle subdivisions in Ft. Myers, by Martin’s estimates.
This does not take into account other homes across the south and southeast, from southeast Texas through Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana, and into Virginia, a total impact which could comprise more than 300,000 homes.
“This isn’t even counting the West Coast,” Martin adds. “Since we know that the major ports of entry for the toxic drywall were Oakland, Long Beach and the Seattle/Tacoma area, not Miami or New Orleans. So, for the West Coast, it’s not so much as question of ‘if’, but ‘when’.”
The problem has been more noticeable in the south and southeast only because ordinarily high temperatures, combined with normally high humidity, seem to trigger a chemical reaction that makes the toxicity more noticeable, and more lethal.
What surprises Martin and other consumer advocates is the fact that the CPSC, even with a budget of over $20 million, has so far managed to study and report on no more than six homes – four with toxic drywall and two without. Even then, the agency has – while admitting the drywall has the potential to short out copper wiring and appliances (including essential air-conditioning units) and generally make a home unlivable – fallen far short of admitting that there is a widespread threat to the health of inhabitants.
“The government has been worthless on this deal,” Martin asserts. “And the fact that the CPSC is reporting a mere thousand or so homes nationwide looks to many affected homeowners who contact us like a concerted attempt by federal agencies to cover up the problem. I use the word conspiracy cautiously, but the CPSC saying the Chinese government is assisting in the problem sounds like baloney.”
Martin also questions CPSC expenditures, noting that his agency has spent only about $20,000 to identify affected homes. Another area of concern is the CPSC study of 50 homes, a secondary study that was to have resolved the problem. That study, due in September and postponed, deferred again in October and now due in November, has yet to appear.
The hardest part for homeowners is that insurors have begun cancelling policies, or refusing to renew them. This means that homeowners will be forced to walk away, adding to the housing bubble meltdown, reducing the funding for cities and municipalities whose budgets rely on property taxes, and engorging landfills with a toxic brew certain to cause environmental degradation and health problems all down the road.
Martin’s concern is that, if such insuror cancellations become the subject of litigation between attorneys and insurance companies, the latter will rely on a little-known environmental/defective construction exclusionary clause that will drag disputes on for years:
“Most of these homeowners don’t have six months,” Martin adds. “The air inside the houses is that bad.”
So far, the chemicals identified are sulfur and strontium, with Dr. Patricia Johnson – a toxicologist at the University of New Orleans – isolating sulfuric acid, sulfur dioxide and sulfur trioxide. Rumors, of the drywall containing bacterial toxins, have not been verified and are unlikely in any case, says Martin, since the levels of sulfur components would likely kill any bacteria present. National Public Radio, or NPR, reported on radioactive ingredients, but strontium in its elemental state is not radioactive.
Florida Governor Charlie Crist has said almost nothing about the issue; the Obama administration, in spite of its incoming promise to be more transparent than the former administration, and to respond to the next national disaster in a more robust fashion than Bush et al, has said almost as little. The media has been equally circumspect, likely fearing the loss of advertising dollars from bankers and builders.
“I’d bet, if you walked down Wiltshire Boulevard (in Los Angeles) and asked people about Chinese drywall, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about,” Martin says. “Yet Bill Nelson (D-FL) says he can’t find a venue big enough for town hall meetings about the subject in his home state.”
On a more encouraging note, one Chinese drywall manufacturer, Knauf Plasterboard, announced on Nov. 3 that it would participate in a class action complaint. This means that claimants will be allowed to consolidate their claims into one lawsuit; Knauf hasn’t stated terms of settlement, and Knauf is only one of 20 Chinese manufacturers reportedly identified by New Orleans Judge Eldon E. Fallon. No others have so far come forward to admit culpability.
“One has to wonder, if this story came out as it should, if the U.S. business community’s love affair with China might end abruptly as a result of consumers refusing to buy Chinese products.” Martin speculates.
One thing is certain; the toxic drywall that finds its way to landfills across the South, as far west as Texas and as far north as Virginia, is sure to leave a legacy much more enduring, and more environmentally lethal, than anything Nature has thrown our way. And you thought coal-mining ash ponds were bad?
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