Scope Widens In Tainted Chinese Drywall Cases In Florida

On Florida's Gulf coast, home builders, health officials and home buyers are angry about what they believe is defective drywall made in China. The problem came to light when residents of new homes complained of persistent odors and air conditioning coils that quickly corroded. Officials believe it's related to high sulfur content in gypsum used in the drywall's construction. But just how widespread is the problem?

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Remember those recalls of Chinese made toothpaste, toys and pet food? Well, now there's news of another defective product from China: drywall that's used in the construction of thousands of homes. The problems first surfaced in Florida, where, as NPR's Greg Allen reports, homeowners say vapors from the drywall have ruined their air conditioners and made them sick.

GREG ALLEN: Liz Rank(ph) says she noticed the odor almost immediately. It was in June of 2006, when she and her family moved into their new home in Heritage Harbor, a community in Manatee County on Florida's Gulf Coast.

Ms. LIZ RANK (Resident, Heritage Harbor, Florida): I kept telling my husband, there's a smell when we get into this house, and it wasn't every single day, but it was there. And then, it just got progressively worse as the years went on.

ALLEN: It's an odor often described as sulfur-like or vinegary, but as noticeable as it may have been, that wasn't what got the attention of homeowners and homebuilders. The first indication something was seriously wrong with the Ranks' house, and many others here in Heritage Harbor, was what started happening to the air-conditioning systems. Up and down their street, air conditioners started going bad. What really concerned Rank, though, were the health effects she says living in the house had on her, her husband and her four-year-old daughter.

Ms. RANK: I started getting really bad headaches; I still don't have my voice completely back; we noticed tightening of our chests; my daughter was getting bloody noses on a frequent basis; and all the neighbors were experiencing the same things.

ALLEN: Concerned about their health, the Ranks moved out of the house in November. They're now renting a home in another neighborhood. Investigations soon identified what was causing the problem: the odor was coming from drywall that had been imported from China. Building consultant Michael Foreman says in 2005 and 2006, there was a shortage of drywall produced in the U.S.

Mr. MICHAEL FOREMAN (Owner, Foreman & Associates, Inc.): You had the hurricanes; you also the building boom; you had everything going on at the time. Housing was wide open.

ALLEN: To fill the gap, brokers in drywall suppliers began importing product from China.

Mr. FOREMAN: Mm-hm. Yeah, as soon as I walk in, you can get this smell.

ALLEN: Foreman takes me into the Ranks' house, a now vacant two-story home. Large sections of drywall are missing in some rooms. Foreman is wearing a respirator, which muffles his voice.

It's kind of a sulfur smell.

Mr. FOREMAN: It's like fireworks or book of matches, something on that sense.

ALLEN: Foreman takes out a screwdriver and opens up the air handler on the air conditioner.

Mr. FOREMAN: Also noticed all the copper is black. But this is what happens to a unit in a very short period of time, and then it starts failing, the coils, the welts, like a radiator, and this is what manufacturers keep coming back and replacing.

ALLEN: In the two and a half years they lived here, the Ranks replaced their air-conditioning unit three times. Homes in this section of Heritage Harbor were built by Lennar, one of the nation's largest homebuilders. The company says it's identified at least 30 homes in this subdivision and at least 50 others elsewhere in the state that have what they're calling drywall issues. Lennar hired and environmental services company to conduct the most extensive study of the emissions from the drywall to date. Company officials aren't giving interviews that, but made available Bob DeMott, the toxicologist with Environ. He says testing showed that the drywall emits sulfide gases, which react with metal to cause corrosion and pitting. At the low levels he found, DeMott says, the chemicals don't pose a health risk.

Dr. ROBERT P. DEMOTT (Managing Principal, Environ Corp.): In all the homes that we sampled, we determined that there were no levels of any of the sulfide gases of concern that were higher than either the government standards available or the levels that are reported in the scientific literature to produce effects on humans.

ALLEN: Florida health officials say they've received over 50 calls from homeowners who believed they have problematic drywall, but have not yet decided whether to launch their own investigation. Chuck Henry, the environmental health director in Sarasota County, says the guidelines for exposure established by the federal government are workplace standards for adults, not residential standards for families that include children. Henry says before a determination can be made about the drywall's health effects, more study is needed.

Mr. CHARLES HENRY (Director, Environmental Health, Sarasota County Health Department, Sarasota, Florida): I don't think we have enough information gathered at this point to determine whether or not there's direct links to health related to any of these things.

ALLEN: Lennar is far from the only homebuilder affected. In 2006, millions of pounds of suspect Chinese drywall were received at ports throughout Florida, also New Orleans and Mississippi. Knauf, an international company based in Germany, was one of the largest suppliers. Knauf traces the problem to high-sulfur gypsum taken from a particular mine in China, a mine that's no longer being used. Lennar has filed a lawsuit against Knauf and another Chinese drywall manufacturer. In the meantime, the homebuilder has begun paying for residents' relocation and has been replacing the drywall in some of the homes. The Ranks aren't part of that deal, however; they stopped paying their mortgage months ago and moved out. Liz Rank says she's hoping for a short sale before they're foreclosed on.

Ms. RANK: We're at this point where we don't have the faith to move back into the house and know that it's not going to be a sick house again.

ALLEN: The class-action lawsuit has already been filed, naming Knauf and another Florida homebuilder who's believed to have used the drywall. It's not expected to be the last. The Ranks and other homeowners with defective drywall are talking to attorneys about filing their own lawsuits. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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