MANATEE — Federal officials have not linked Chinese drywall to health problems and metal corrosion yet, despite homeowners’ and politicians’ criticism and initial laboratory test results released Thursday.
Those tests showed the imported drywall has more sulfur and strontium, and emits higher rates of volatile sulfuric compounds than comparable North American wallboard. But officials called those tests limited, saying at least another month of study is needed before they can say whether Chinese drywall is causing homes’ corroded pipes and electrical outlets, foul odors, and runny noses, sore throats and other health problems.
“We’re still trying to find that link, that connection,” Consumer Product Safety Commission spokesman Scott Wolfson said. “We must have scientific proof of the hazards of the problem.”
The CPSC has spent eight months and $3.5 million in leading a multi-agency investigation into the building product, whose use surged during the 2004-07 building and post-hurricane reconstruction boom because of American drywall shortages. Enough Chinese drywall was imported to potentially be in 100,000 U.S. homes, more than a third of them in Florida, according to estimates.
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But the lack of conclusive answers thus far continues to frustrate homeowners and their elected officials.
“I simply don’t think it is happening fast enough,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., told CPSC officials during a briefing on the investigation.
Nelson also penned a letter to President Barack Obama, urging him to discuss the drywall issue when the president visits China next month.
A CPSC official urged patience, saying science needs time to determine the root of the issue.
“We’d like to be able to give you an answer that we know is 100 percent,” Lori Saltzman, director of the agency’s hazard identification and reduction office, told Nelson and other congressional members. “Unfortunately, forensic investigation does take time. We want to get you the right answer.”
To help find it, the CPSC tested 17 drywall samples — seven from China and the rest from the U.S., Canada and Mexico — to determine their chemical composition.
Those tests found sulfur concentrations in the Chinese samples that were up to 49 times higher than those found in the North American samples. Levels of strontium, a soft metal often used in fireworks and flares, were up to 31 times higher in the Chinese samples, but not high enough to pose a radiological risk.
While that mirrored results from earlier tests conducted by others, CPSC scientists warned there still isn’t enough evidence to conclude that is causing metal corrosion or harming people’s health.
“These effects might be caused by combinations of chemicals, different forms of the chemicals present in the drywall, or something else not considered in the elemental analysis,” the scientists said in their report.
Finding those chemicals, and the interaction among them, has been the most difficult challenge in assessing the drywall’s potential health risks, said Dr. David Krause, Florida’s state toxicologist.
Further testing by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that the Chinese samples emitted volatile sulfur compounds at a rate 25 times faster than the North American samples. Officials said that wasn’t surprising because the Chinese samples had more sulfur to begin with.
But other testing on air samples collected from 10 Florida and Louisiana homes, some with Chinese drywall and others without, found no or insignificant concentrations of sulfuric gases. Officials said those findings were limited, and that results from a 50-home study expected to be released next month should be more conclusive.
The testing also detected acetaldehyde and formaldehyde in the air samples, including at levels that could worsen asthma symptoms. But those levels were only found in cases where air conditioners were not working or turned off, regardless of whether Chinese drywall was in the house. When the air conditioning was on, those chemicals fell to safe levels.
“I wasn’t surprised to find formaldehyde in newer houses and when the air conditioner was turned off,” said Dr. Michael McGeehin of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “But I was pleased to see that, when the air conditioner is on, they were not high enough to cause health problems.”
Officials said they expect to release more test results in late November, and that the Chinese government is assisting in the investigation.
Chinese officials “are taking this very seriously,” Wolfson said. But he couldn’t say whether Chinese manufacturers would be willing to help pay for damages as hundreds of homeowner lawsuits are seeking.
CPSC officials also said more study is needed before they can consider a potential recall, ban or government efforts to assist homeowners. In the meantime, federal officials urged homeowners to contact their lenders for possible assistance and file drywall reports with the CPSC.
Officials also pledged to move as fast as science will allow because “we understand this problem has literally driven people from their homes,” Saltzman said.
Late Thursday, the U.S. House passed an amendment introduced by U.S. Reps. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, and Glenn Nye, D-Va., to provide disaster assistance to homeowners whose primary residences are impacted by Chinese drywall. The amendment authorizes the Small Business Administration to provide low interest loans to repair or replace real estate and personal property damaged or destroyed.
Herald Washington Bureau reporter Lesley Clark contributed to this report.
Duane Marsteller, Herald transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 2630.