Federal study proves high toxin levels in Chinese drywall

mjohnson@bradenton.comMay 7, 2014 

BRIAN BLANCO/bblanco@bradenton.com Large holes appear in the drywall of a home on Montauk Point Crossing in Heritage Harbour Tuesday morning as crews work to remove suspected Chinese drywall, and related debris, from several homes on the block.

BRIAN BLANCO — BRIAN BLANCO

MANATEE -- A new government study of Chinese drywall has, for the first time, definitively shown that emissions from the controversial building material can cause short- and long-term health problems.

That conclusion, says Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, may help more Florida residents exposed to the drywall get it out of their homes.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study concludes that people exposed to sulfur compounds emitted by some drywalls "may have experienced adverse health effects or a reduced quality of life." It labels some drywall manufactured in China and installed in U.S. homes in 2005 and 2006 as "a public health concern," noting that people exposed to it may have experienced a litany of symptoms, from headaches and eye irritation to gastrointestinal problems.

Based on drywall samples tested in 2009 and 2010, the study was undertaken on Nelson's behalf. The Democrat has sponsored legislation concerning Chinese drywall and called for an investigation of the building material.

Having hard scientific evidence to back up the claims

of homeowners exposed to Chinese drywall will help victims get their properties repaired, Nelson said in a statement. He called for the Health and Human Services study after his office received complaints from people saying they had grown ill due to the drywall in their homes

"The report provides the first solid links between various illnesses Florida homeowners have suffered and the defective Chinese drywall in their homes," he said. "That's why we need to stay on top of these Chinese manufacturers to fix this and make things right."

About 2,000 of the 3,400 cases of defective drywall reported nationwide were in Florida, according to Nelson's office. In Manatee County, builders and county officials have reported that Chinese drywall used in homes has been replaced. Both Lakewood Ranch-based Neal Communities and national homebuilder Lennar removed and replaced some drywall identified as toxic several years ago. John Barnott, the Manatee County's director of building and development services, said any complaints about the material were handled by builders.

The new study does have limits. Testers at the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory had only 30 samples to work with. Seventeen were from China, while 13 were from North America. Testing took place in 2009 and 2010, four to five years after the suspected problem drywall was installed in U.S. homes and other buildings. The report notes that the samples had offgassed significantly in the intervening years. If they hadn't, "higher indoor emission rates would have been found."

Researchers were able to coax high levels of sulfur dioxide emissions out of some of the samples, but none of those levels reached the 520 micrograms per cubic meter shown to cause adverse health symptoms. The highest reading in the testing was 397 micrograms per cubic meter.

Overall, researchers said certain Chinese drywall samples emitted the most toxic gas. At a temperature of 105 degrees and a humidity level of 87 percent, some of the Chinese drywall samples put out four to five times the toxins as North American samples. The North American drywall did emit many of the same substances as the Chinese drywall, though at a level the study calls "below levels of public concern."

In its conclusions, the study recommends that people suffering health symptoms they believe to be associated with problem drywall should see a doctor. It also recommends that homeowners who suspect that their homes contain toxic drywall follow guidelines published by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for testing and removal.

Sen. Nelson recently circulated a letter to his Senate colleagues in which he urged Chinese drywall manufacturer Taishan Gypsum to reach a "fair and just settlement" with homeowners who suffered damage to their homes and health due to the company's product. Taishan has been ordered by a federal appeals court to pay $2.7 million to Virginia homeowners for damages related to the company's drywall.

Another manufacturer, Knauf Tainjin Plasterboard, created a fund to pay for repairs to about 5,200 affected properties largely located in Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama.

The new report will eventually be available on the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry website.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.

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