Blog: The Informed Ecologist

Archive for May, 2010

Chinese Drywall Maker Reaches Settlement

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

 If walls could talk, the ones in your new home might say “thank you.” Especially if they are sulfur-oozing, health-hazardous ones manufactured in China.In a move to quell the controversy over homes built with defective drywall, Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co., a German-owned exporter of the Chinese-made product, has reached a settlement with Atlanta-based builder Beazer Homes USA, Inc., reports The Wall Street Journal.

This agreement is the first of around 200 lawsuits filed against Knauf for its faulty drywall, as the company races to keep the matter out of court.

As home construction surged during the boom, Knauf’s product, which is also called gypsum board, was imported and slapped into the construction of many residences across America.
Now U.S. homeowners — many of whom paid top price — and their home-builders have discovered that the drywall is emitting hazardous sulfur-like odors, corroding metal and causing health problems. The builders are facing lawsuits, and in turn have sued the product’s manufacturers and others associated with it.
According to the Journal, Beazer disclosed in its quarterly report that there are approximately 50 homes in Southwest Florida where the drywall was installed, and the company is setting aside close to $27 million toward the problem. Lennar Corp., another builder embattled in the mess, has allocated $81 million to fix about 750 Florida homes.

In an average home, the estimated expense to extricate the defective drywall and cover related damage to electrical wiring and appliances is $100,000. According to the consulting firm Towers Watson, the U.S. has incurred total costs ranging somewhere from $15 billion to $25 billion.

And this figure may stem from the number of individuals affected.

Approximately, 3,300 complaints from 37 states have been filed with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. But despite allegations implicating the company nationwide, Kerry Miller, a partner at the New Orleans law firm Frilot LLC which is representing Knauf, said the origins of the drywall will have to verified as a Knauf product.

“We have a lot of people calling and saying we have drywall that says “Made in China” on it and they assume that it’s ours,” said Miller. “But it’s not necessarily ours.”

Miller added that Knauf is in negotiations with six to 10 other builders, who used the material in U.S. home constructions, and that further settlements are imminent within weeks.

If you’re contemplating the purchase of a new home built by one of these companies, find out the source of the drywall before going to contract.

Indoor air kills 2.2 million young Chinese: report

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

More than two million Chinese youths die each year from health problems related to indoor air pollution, with nearly half of them under five years of age, state media cited a government study as saying.The study released by the China Centre for Disease Control and Prevention said indoor pollution levels can often be 5-10 times higher than those measured in the nation’s notoriously bad outdoor air, the China News Service said.This indoor pollution causes respiratory and other conditions that kill 2.2 million youths each year, one million of whom are under the age of five, the report said, citing the study released on Sunday.AFP was not immediately able to obtain a copy of the study.The study said dangerous indoor pollutants include formaldehyde, benzene, ammonia and radon.It said formaldehyde posed the biggest threat. It is often found in building materials and new furniture in China and can be slowly released into indoor environments over the course of several years.It said long-term exposure to such substances can cause a range of health problems including respiratory diseases, mental impairment and cancer, with young children, foetuses in utero and the elderly at most risk.China’s massive economic expansion of the past three decades has made it one of the world’s most polluted countries as environmental and health concerns are trampled amid an overriding focus on industrial growth.Countless cities are smothered in smog while hundreds of millions of citizens lack access to clean drinking water.A 2007 World Bank report said 750,000 Chinese die prematurely each year due to air and water pollution — a figure edited out of final versions of the report, reportedly after China warned it could cause social unrest.

Drill Baby Drill to Spill Baby Spill

Monday, May 17th, 2010

As a chemical scientist and a manufacturer of Specialty Chemicals  we are very disappointed in the dollars saving design the industry employed. The catastrophic explosion that caused an oil spill from a BP offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico is on track to become the worst oil spill in history, surpassing the damage done by the Exxon Valdez tanker that spilled 11 million gallons of oil into the ecologically sensitive Prince William Sound in 1989. Unlike the Exxon Valdez tragedy, in which a tanker held a finite capacity of oil, BP’s rig is tapped into an underwater oil well and could pump more oil into the ocean indefinitely until the leak is plugged. (In 1855, the Dwamish Chief Seattle, of Washington Territory, sent the following letter to President Franklin Pierce. Not surprisingly, his powerful plea was ignored by Pierce, and every President to follow. Now, we need, more than ever, a president who will listen to Chief Seattle’s simple words.)

To the Great Chief in Washington,

We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of the land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his father’s grave, and his children’s birthright is forgotten.

The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the red man. But perhaps it is because the red man is a savage and does not understand. There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. No place to hear the leaves of spring or the rustle of insect wings. But perhaps because I am a savage and do not understand, the clatter only seems to insult the ears.

The Indian prefers the soft sound of the wind itself cleansed by a midday rain, or scented by a Pinion pine. The air is precious to the Redman. For all things share the same breath: the beasts, the trees, and the man.

The white man does not seem to notice the air he breathes. Like a man dying for many days, he is numb to the stench.

I have seen thousands of rotting buffaloes on the prairie left by the white man who shot them from a passing train. I am a savage and do not understand. What is man without the beasts? If all beasts were gone, men would die from great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beast happens also to the man.

This we know: The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man does not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

Our children have seen their fathers humbled in defeat. Our warriors have felt shame. It matters little where we pass the rest of our days; they are not many. A few more hours, a few more winters, and none of the children of the great tribes that once lived on this earth will remain to mourn the graves of a people once as powerful and hopeful as yours.

But even the white man cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all; we shall see. One thing we know, which the white man may one day discover: our God is the same God. You may think that you own him as you wish to own our land, but you cannot. He is the Body of man, and his compassion is equal for the red man and white. This earth is precious to him, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its Creator.

The whites too shall pass, perhaps sooner than other tribes. Continue to contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.

But in your perishing you may shine brightly, fired by the strength of the God who brought you to this land and for some special purpose gave you dominion over this land and over the red man. That destiny is a mystery for us, for we do not understand when the buffalo are slaughtered, and the wild horses tamed. Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.

We might understand if we knew what it was the white man dreams, what hopes he describes to his children on long winter nights, what visions he burns into their minds, so they will wish for tomorrow. But we are savages. The white man’s dreams are hidden from us. And because they are hidden we will go our own way.

If we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it as we have cared for it. Hold in your memory the way the land is as you take it. And with all your strength, with all your might, with all your heart, preserve it for your children and love it …. as God loves us all.

One thing we know. Our God is the same God. This earth is precious to Him. Even the white man cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all.

Meth houses need to be decontaminated

Monday, May 17th, 2010

Health and law enforcement officials across the country are becoming increasingly alarmed at the number of homes being sold that were once used as meth houses or laboratories. The problem developing is that former homes where meth was either used or manufactured are in fact health hazards to anyone currently residing in them due to the residual poisons that were soaked into the walls, window treatments and flooring.

Health officials say the number of people incurring health issues is constantly increasing to the point where several states are beginning to pass laws that require a home seller to disclose if the house was ever involved with meth at any level.For every pound of meth that was cooked in a home, five to seven pounds of chemical waste products are created. From this waste, a variety of long term health problems can occur including but not limited to: headaches, blisters, damaged lungs, liver or kidneys.In the case of very young children crawling around on a floor soaked with meth byproducts or picking up objects and putting them in their mouths, brain damage may develop.In 2005, nearly 17,000 homes were seized by authorities (many ending up in foreclosure) and unknown to those subsequently purchasing these homes, the families inhabiting them are exposed to the dangers of the toxic chemical waste left behind.

While at this time there are no federal guidelines for cleanup of these materials, in 12 states (Arizona included), it is illegal to occupy a dwelling before it’s been decontaminated.However, in most states there are few protections in place.Fourteen states (including Arizona) require property owners to disclose if the property offered was a former drug house and 13 states (Arizona being one of them) have actually established a guideline for cleanup.The cost of cleaning and decontaminating a former meth lab is astronomical. It can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 to complete. Unfortunately, with no federal assistance in place, the price tag is up to the property owner to absorb.

Right now there are literally tens of thousands of contaminated residences across the United States. Living in one of these former drug houses can very easily cause a family to face financial ruin between having to pay for any possible cleanup, developing health-related illnesses and having to throw away any personal possessions that can’t be cleaned. Add to that the cost of acquiring another residence and then moving. It is a nationwide nightmare.Currently the national Jewish Medical and Research Center is conducting a study on the impact of meth labs. In the meantime if you are considering a home purchase, do your research!

Chinese drywall may drag

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

Chinese drywall problems in Parkland could soon lead to even lower property values for homes in the city.

The Broward Property Appraiser’s Office has received applications for property value reduction from 115 homeowners in Parkland dealing with Chinese drywall. If all the homeowners get the reduction they are looking for — 89 have already had their building value reduced 50 percent — the total value of the homes will go down more than $30 million.“This is affecting every Parkland resident,” said John Willis, a member of the Chinese Drywall Task Force. “The Broward Property Appraiser’s Office reduces building value by 50 percent for homes that have Chinese drywall. The total value of the homes was $74,285,860. The value after reduction, if all applications are approved, will be $43,917,800 [so] the total loss of taxable value will be $30,368,060.”

Chinese drywall ruinous to local families

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

The acrid odor from behind their walls at times made them sick, and something seemed to be etching their chandeliers, piping and jewelry.

Cynthia Scott said she suffered nosebleeds while pregnant with her son, now 2, who had to be rushed to the emergency room twice during coughing fits.

Everyone in the family of five, including two older children, suffered headaches.

Then they came to suspect the cause: Chinese drywall. They had it inspected and moved out of the Brookhaven home they bought for $231,000 in 2006.

“I think I’ve cried every tear I could cry,” said Scott, a paralegal. Her husband, Jonathan, is a sales representative. “It’s been very devastating.”Now, the Scotts have joined about 2,000 others who are suing in federal court for compensation from the companies that made, distributed and built with the wallboard — imported during the rush of construction in the housing bubble and after the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005.The most recent data show as many as 20 reports of suspected Chinese drywall in Brevard County and more than 600 statewide. Experts fear the number could grow to more than 25,000 in Florida alone, based on the amount imported.

Since moving from their home in December, the Scotts pay $1,200 in rent each month. For now, they’ve stopped paying their $2,200 monthly mortgage payment, which they’re trying to negotiate down.

After the housing bust, their home is valued at a little more than $128,000.And the Scotts said Chinese drywall gutted the value further. It would cost upwards of $100,000 to tear the house down to the studs, replace the drywall, wiring, plumbing and other items needed to clear up the problem. That doesn’t include rebuilding.They said corrosive wallboard caused their air conditioner’s copper coils to blacken and the refrigerant to constantly leak — telltale signs that the gypsum in their drywall came from China. They said they had inspections that prove it.But their insurance company turned down their claim.

So far, the Scotts are the only confirmed case of Chinese drywall in Brevard, according to the property appraiser’s office. Several others have inquired, staff members said, but no one has applied yet for the adjustment to their taxes because of bad drywall that the appraiser offered in October.

The Scotts took the first step by signing a form declaring their intent to rebuild and reoccupy the house because of Chinese drywall. They can get the house dropped to salvage value, about $4,000 to $5,000, to save them money on taxes until the matter is resolved, Cynthia Scott said.

Why it’s a problem

As of January, the Consumer Product Safety Commission had received more than 2,800 reports from residents who suspect that their health symptoms or corrosion of metal parts in their homes are linked to drywall made in China. Almost 60 percent of those, about 1,600, were in Florida.

As of Feb. 1, there were more than 660 cases from 30 counties reported to the Florida Department of Health, including the 20 in Brevard.

But the problem could be much bigger, based on the more than 400 million pounds imported into the state since 1999, said Rob Crangle, a minerals commodity specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

A 2,000-square-foot house uses, on average, about 16,000 pounds of drywall, so as many as 25,000 homes in Florida may be infected.“I think these will continue to trickle in for a long time,” Crangle said. “It still amazes me that that much wallboard came from China to begin with.”

Much of the gypsum produced in the U.S. that goes into drywall is derived from high-sulfur coals from the Appalachian basin that burn in power plants, Crangle said. It comes from scrubbers that inject limestone slurry used to remove sulfur gases from smokestacks, after fly ash is removed. Sulfur gets baked out of that “synthetic” gypsum.

Most gypsum imported into the U.S. comes from Canada and Mexico. Chinese drywall imports spiked between 2003 and 2008, especially when construction demand peaked.

The problematic drywall is thought to trace back to a few mines in China with higher than usual sulfides.

Owners describe a “rotten egg” sulfur smell and a slew of chronic symptoms, including respiratory irritation, headaches, sinus and eye pain and nosebleeds. But almost a quarter of the homes have no odor.

It wasn’t long after the Scotts bought their home that they noticed a strong acidic smell.

“We always smelled something in the one bathroom ever since we moved into the house,” Scott said.

They had their air conditioner repaired three times in two years. The last time, a repairman found the blackened copper coils in their unit. He asked if they knew about Chinese drywall.

They found similar tainted copper piping throughout the house.Scott said her family hired an inspector they found on the Internet who didn’t seem to know much about the problem but charged almost $300, telling them they may have issues with air-quality control.They got a second opinion from Mark Levy of Associated Environmental Consulting Group of Palm Bay, who offered to inspect the house for free. He pulled out the outlets and looked at the air conditioner and electrical panel. Without sampling, he knew what it was, he said.The dark-black hue of the copper gave away the precise chemical reaction seen only with the corrosive compounds common in Chinese drywall.“It’s textbook; it’s indicative of a reactive drywall problem,” Levy said.But specific protocols of proving corrosive Chinese drywall are a work in progress, with federal agencies continuing to study causes and health effects.Scott said her family’s ailments vanished when they weren’t at home. “It seemed like every time we walked out of the house, within a few hours, we’d feel fine,” she said.Taking actionU.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, wants the Consumer Product Safety Commission to create drywall safety standards to prevent a repeat of the problem. He also prodded the Internal Revenue Service last year to allow affected owners to qualify for special tax deductions.

U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, co-sponsored the Drywall Safety Act of 2009, which further researches bad drywall and extends an interim ban on importation.

“There’s so many unknowns right now that it’s hard to get your arms around it,” Posey said. “This stuff is like a time bomb. They don’t all go off at the same time.”

In December, the U.S. House passed a nonbinding resolution co-sponsored by Posey to encourage banks and mortgage service providers to delay foreclosures without penalty on payments to home mortgages.

But that’s not much solace for the Scotts. For now, it’s a sit-and-wait situation for them and thousands of others as the legal system takes over.On Friday, the first test case in lawsuits over Chinese drywall began in U.S. District Court in New Orleans. The hearing will set repair standards for homes to guide similar cases.

Bill Cash, the Pensacola attorney representing the Scotts, wouldn’t disclose how many plaintiffs his firm represents in the drywall case. But he said the nationwide toll could be as high as 100,000 properties.

The timeline and outcome are uncertain, he said, given some of the drywall companies’ ties to the Chinese government.“It will depend on if we can bring enough of these defendants to the table,” Cash said.Scott said her family lives paycheck to paycheck.“I have to trust in my faith and trust the God I serve is going to come through for me,” she said. “I also have faith in our legal system.”