Blog: The Informed Ecologist

Chinese drywall ruinous to local families

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.”

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