Code Official Alert: In the Walls—A New Health Concern
State and federal health officials are now trying to determine whether gases emitted by the drywall are hazardous to humans.
The Sarasota County Health department was at the forefront of the issue, beginning an investigation in the summer. The agency spread the word, sparking a sweeping inquiry that brought in state and federal health agencies. Builders, suppliers, one of the manufacturers and private testing labs are also involved — some conducting parallel investigations.
"There does seem to be a strong association between the presence of the Chinese drywall and the coil corrosion issues," said Dr. David Krause, state toxicologist with the Bureau of Environmental Public Health Medicine.
Air-conditioning evaporator coils, which are supposed to last a decade or more, are corroding and failing in homes only a couple of years old. Pipes and wiring may also be deteriorating.
"We are very interested in the possible health issues here," said Bob Kallotte, environmental specialist with the Sarasota County health department. "We have some evidence that people are experiencing symptoms as result of this, but we have not confirmed the cause. We are taking this very seriously."
The chemicals that investigators are trying to pinpoint are measured at tiny levels, requiring sophisticated and complex equipment that only a few labs in the country have.
The state is planning to conduct more extensive testing of its own on a subset of the affected homes — about a half-dozen — in coming weeks. "They are currently being identified by the county health departments, and by individual homeowners who've called us," said Krause, the state toxicologist.
The state is aware of about 50 complaints, with 30 coming from sites including Sarasota County south along Florida's west coast. Manatee and Pinellas are also among the affected counties. There is no requirement for builders to report complaints from their customers.
Health officials suspect that the Chinese drywall may have been used by many builders operating in Southwest Florida from 2004 to 2006, when a drywall shortage prompted some to look for alternative sources of the material. Some builders may not even be aware they were installing it.
"The builders are in fear right now; they want to keep it as quiet as possible," said Mike Foreman, a Sarasota construction consultant who has been investigating the drywall issue. The damage to houses is considerable and very expensive to fix, he said.
"What's really the concern is what the long-term effects are on piping, wiring, everything that has been exposed," Foreman said. "Now you're talking about starting to have failures. It's not enough to just rip it out without addressing all these other components."
Corroding wires could pose an increased risk of electrical fire, for example.
"The builders know this could be huge, there is no doubt they're worried," Foreman said.
The Herald-Tribune contacted nearly a dozen national and local builders active in Sarasota-Bradenton at the time the drywall was being used, but only a handful agreed to answer questions.
National builder Centex sent a statement saying it "has not used any imported drywall," but did not provide further details on how it came to that conclusion.
John Cannon, owner of Lakewood Ranch-based John Cannon Homes, said his company has not received any complaints and that it did not use any Chinese drywall.
"We have a scope of work for contractors that's very specific about what we allow," Cannon said. "We have never used it or allowed it to be used. We've known it might be a problem."
Leisa Weintraub, with Lakewood Ranch-based Neal Communities, said neither Neal nor its suppliers used foreign drywall. "They have assured us that have not," she said, adding that during the drywall shortage the company decided to "slow down the building process" rather than buy imports.
The most responsive builder so far has been Miami-based Lennar Corp. — this region's largest builder — which conducted an extensive investigation after customers began complaining about strange smells and coil corrosion. Lennar hired environmental consulting firm Environ to perform tests, and began tracing the supply chain.
Lennar found it had used Chinese drywall in Southwest Florida. Company representatives said independent contractors installed the product without Lennar knowing.
In a written statement, Darrin McMurray, Lennar's Southwest Division president, said the builder identified a small percentage of homes built from November 2005 to November 2006 where the Chinese product was used. "Lennar has been working with our homeowners on long-term solutions that are based on the specific testing of their homes," McMurray said.
The company has begun removing the drywall and conducting other repairs in some affected homes, including in Manatee County's Heritage Harbour development.
At least three shipments containing Chinese drywall are known to have come in to the Port of Tampa from 2004 to 2006, said Foreman, the construction consultant.
Two kinds of board came off the ships: half-inch standard wallboard, and 5/8-inch "fire-rated" wallboard. The latter product, which building codes mandate for certain types of walls, is supposed to have documentation attesting that it meets international standards. The Chinese product had no such stamps.
"There were very few markings at all on it," Foreman said.
State officials and builders said one manufacturer of the Chinese drywall was Knauf, a German-based company, which made the product at its subsidiary's plant in China. Knauf Plasterboard (Tianjin) Co. Ltd. has made plasterboard for almost a decade in Tianjin, China.
In a written statement responding to questions from the the Herald-Tribune, Knauf said: "The company is conducting a thorough investigation and cooperating with builders that have contacted it. Studies and testing by nationally recognized experts are ongoing. The testing has confirmed that copper has blackened and may be caused by low levels of naturally occurring sulfur gases. The low levels of gases do not present a health risk to persons within the residences."
Knauf "is assessing remedial options to correct conditions that are identified with respect to its plasterboard, with the least intrusion for homeowners."
The company said it only shipped drywall to the United States during 2006. It said it was only one of many Chinese manufacturers that sent product to Florida at the time.
Knauf began to hear complaints in South Florida in late 2006 about the sulfur smell: "The plasterboard was manufactured with naturally mined gypsum rock. The company disclosed to the importer that there may be a slight odor, which depends on the natural ingredients of the rock."
But Foreman has questions about whether waste products made their way into the Chinese board. His research has shown that waste from coal-fired plants was used in some of the filler.
It is unclear how far the drywall was distributed beyond Florida. Dawn Harris-Young, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the agency received its first report from outside the state last week.
"We have had one report out of Virginia Beach," she said.
Doug Hoffman, executive director of the Louisiana-based National Organization of Remediators and Mold Inspectors, wonders whether the Chinese drywall found its way into New Orleans and the Gulf Coast for post-Hurricane Katrina rebuilding.
"We are watching beyond Florida, as there is the possibility it might be showing up here," Hoffman said. "But we have not heard that yet. As far as I know, there's still a bit of study about that. It's a very expensive process to figure out what the problems are."
[Source: Sarasota Herald Tribune | January 11, 2009]
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