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Federal officials today released the first results of an investigation into drywall imported from China. The case is believed to be one of the largest in U.S. history involving defective building products. The drywall was used in an estimated 100,000 homes in nearly 30 states. But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, so far federal and state authorities are not ready to call it a health hazard.
GREG ALLEN: Tests done by private labs have already identified the problem. The Chinese drywall has been found to contain high levels of sulfur and other organic compounds and to emit sulfide gases that corrode copper pipes and wiring. The homes have a sulfurous odor, like rotten eggs. Homeowners say the drywall causes headaches, sore throats and respiratory ailments.
Congress asked the Consumer Product Safety Commission for help, and the commission enlisted experts from the EPA, the CDC and Housing and Urban Development for its investigation. But after several months of tests and analysis, the commission says it has nothing conclusive yet to report. Yes, tests by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found high levels of sulfur and strontium, but indoor air studies did not find elevated levels of sulfide gases. More studies are being conducted.
As for possible health effects, Dr. Michael McGeehin of the federal Centers for Disease Control said the headaches, sore throats and other symptoms are all evidence of indoor air contamination, but he's not yet ready to lay the blame on Chinese drywall.
Dr. MICHAEL MCGEEHIN (Centers for Disease Control): It's not enough to say that we think we have indoor air contamination. For us to do this properly, we need to try to narrow down the contamination and everything that's in the air is a mixture. We're not sure whether or not it can be more than one compound. It can be two compounds acting together.
ALLEN: Federal and state health officials say along with the toxins contained in the drywall, they've also found other irritants in the homes, including formaldehyde not related to the Chinese imports. Consumer Product Safety Commission officials can't even say yet whether Chinese drywall is causing the corrosion found on pipes and wiring in these houses.
As far as recommendations, health officials say homeowners should open their windows when they can, run their air conditioners and spend as much time outdoors as possible. The recommendations are not likely to satisfy homeowners with toxic drywall. And they certainly don't satisfy Florida Senator Bill Nelson, one of those who asked for the federal investigation.
Senator BILL NELSON (Democrat, Florida): These are not recommendations. Our people are desperate. In addition to the financial devastation and the health effects, they want their government to respond with some answers.
ALLEN: Federal officials say they hope to have some answers in another month, when more test results are in. A federal housing official in the meantime said states can use federal block grants to help homeowners deal with their toxic drywall. Louisiana has begun that process.
Senator Nelson and other members of Congress have called for a ban on new imports and a recall of Chinese drywall. Consumer Product Safety Commission spokesman Scott Wolfson says while all options are on the table, a recall is neither quick nor easy.
Mr. SCOTT WOLFSON (Spokesman, Consumer Product Safety Commission): If we're looking at the issue from a short-term solution, we need to realize that a recall could require some legal action. It could take time to be done.
ALLEN: The head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission recently held talks with Chinese officials about the toxic drywall but received no firm commitments that China would help remedy the problem. Senator Nelson is calling on President Obama and other administration officials to raise the issue again when they visit China next month.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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