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Feds: Chinese drywall, corrosion linked

MANATEE — Federal safety officials confirmed Monday what hundreds of homeowners, their lawyers and private scientists have been saying for months: There’s a link between contaminated Chinese drywall and metal corrosion in homes with the product.

But while the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said test results showed a “strong association,” it stopped short of calling it a direct connection. CPSC officials also would only say there’s a “possible link” between the drywall and health problems reported by homeowners, despite finding elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide in 41 homes with the imported wallboard.

The presence of the colorless, flammable gas could explain the “rotten eggs” odor that homeowners with Chinese drywall have complained about, officials said. The gas could be coming from high levels of elemental sulfur previously found within the drywall, officials said.

It’s also possible the gas is reacting with formaldehyde — commonly found in newer, more airtight homes — or something else to cause watery eyes, coughing, headaches, sinus infections and other health problems reported by homeowners.

“We can say that we believe that there’s a number of different compounds and chemicals that, when brought together, can be related to some of these irritant health effects that we’ve been getting reports of,” CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson told reporters during a conference call announcing the test results. “But we’re still working toward that exact nexus.”

That includes studying whether bacteria or other organic materials in the drywall is related to the drywall emitting sulfuric gases.

More conclusive were small strips of silver and copper that investigators left in various homes for up to several weeks. The metal strips corroded faster in homes containing Chinese drywall than in those without, especially in homes that had higher humidity and temperatures, officials said.

Based on that, the CPSC has approved a screening test that homeowners can use to apply for a casualty-loss deduction on their federal tax returns. The results also allow officials to begin developing standard methods to identify and remove the problematic drywall that could include using X-ray or infrared technology.

But officials cautioned that not all Chinese drywall is contaminated, and said they’re not limiting their study to wallboard from the Asian country. China imported more than 7 million sheets of drywall into the United States between 2000 and 2008, the vast majority of it during the 2006 building and hurricane-reconstruction boom, the CPSC said.

“Not all drywall is alike,” said Jack McCarthy, president of Environmental Health & Engineering Inc., the firm hired by the government to perform the air quality tests. “It depends on what it’s made of, not necessarily the country where it came from.”

Critics immediately called the inconclusive test results “disappointing” and further proof that the federal government isn’t moving fast enough on the issue.

“I am very disappointed with the whole process, and especially that the CDC and EPA can’t say whether drywall is harmful to people’s health,” said Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency, which are assisting the CPSC investigation. “Common sense says otherwise, but we still lack definitive answers.”

Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, urged the CPSC to “expedite its review and help the people of Florida who have been suffering both physically and financially by identifying a standard remedy to the problem.”

The conclusions drawn by the CPSC drew criticism from the Formaldehyde Council, disputing the claim that formaldehyde could be connected to the health problems.

“Formaldehyde is not associated with corrosion and is not a component of drywall,” said Betsy Natz, executive director of the council. “It is irresponsible to speculate that formaldehyde and hydrogen sulfide can act in a synergistic or additive manner to cause irritant effects in human beings at the low levels found in the CPSC study.”

The CPSC has received nearly 2,100 complaints from homeowners in 32 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, with two-thirds of those coming from Florida, Wolfson said. He urged homeowners who suspect they have contaminated drywall to report it to the CPSC by calling (800) 638-2772 or going to www.cpsc.gov.

The agency also has spent $3.5 million and allocated 15 percent of its employees on what Wolfson called its largest-ever product-safety investigation.

“We understand the pain and frustration of families impacted by Chinese drywall,” he said.

The CPSC also released preliminary test results that indicate corrosion of electrical wiring in homes with Chinese drywall does not pose an imminent fire hazard. There have been no reports of fires linked to the drywall, Wolfson said.

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