Tests Find Suspect Materials In Chinese Drywall

During the big building boom after Hurricane Katrina, drywall was scarce. Imports of wallboard from China helped fill the gap. Homeowners in at least 16 states are complaining that Chinese drywall is making them sick or corroding their appliances. Testing by the Environmental Protection Agency shows the Chinese drywall contains sulfur and other chemicals that aren't in American wallboard.

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If you don't live in an old house or building with plaster walls, the odds are the walls are drywall. And homeowners in at least 16 states are claiming that the drywall in their homes made them sick or corroded their appliances. The drywall in question came from China.

Environmental Protection Agency testing has found that drywall made in China does contain sulfur and other chemicals not found in American wallboard. China was a popular source for drywall during the building boom after Hurricane Katrina when drywall supplies were scarce.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: EPA officials say their tests aren't conclusive. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is heading the federal investigation, and it says it has no proof that the Chinese drywall harms people or appliances, nor do state health officials. One of the companies that sold the product says it ran tests and found no risk to people.

But Chuck Stefan says he knows the problem is real. His construction company, Mitchell Homes, used Chinese sheetrock in at least 45 houses in Alabama and Florida.

Mr. CHUCK STEFAN (Mitchell Homes): One home had such a severe drywall problem that we had to replace the refrigerator, the washer and the dryer because the wiring had corroded and ruined these appliances.

SHOGREN: Stefan told a Senate hearing in Washington that the houses smell like rotten eggs, and air conditioning units need unusually frequent repairs.

Mr. STEFAN: Once a year, you have to change the coils. It's a very thin copper, and it eats right through.

Senator SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Democrat, Rhode Island): Ordinarily, how often would you have to change the coils in a regular home?

Mr. STEFAN: We have plenty of apartments after 20 years with the same coils still operating in the air handler.

SHOGREN: Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse was questioning Stefan because he wants to make it easier for American consumers and businesses to hold foreign companies responsible for faulty products.

Senators Bill Nelson from Florida and Mary Landrieu from Louisiana are asking their colleagues for $2 million in emergency funds to speed the federal investigation. Nelson says there's Chinese drywall in tens of thousands of homes in his state.

Senator BILL NELSON (Democrat, Florida): We've had mamas and daddies having to vacate their homes because their pediatrician has told them I can't pinpoint the cause of this respiratory problem with the child, but you've got to get the child out of that environment.

SHOGREN: Landrieu says her constituents are having nosebleeds, headaches and difficulty breathing in the homes they rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their last ones.

Senator MARY LANDRIEU (Democrat, Louisiana): Now, they have a home they can't live in. The entire home has to be now ripped out and new materials put in at extraordinary expense and inconvenience.

SHOGREN: The senators say the Consumer Products Safety Commission has not moved swiftly enough to investigate the risks. But the agency's spokesman, Joe Martyak, says the agency's toxicologists have been moving as fast as they can to assess the threat.

Mr. JOE MARTYAK (Spokesman, Consumer Products Safety Commission): We all want to have an answer yesterday, but this will take months.

SHOGREN: Martyak says the $2 million the senators have requested would bring answers faster.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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