Manatee homeowners say Chinese drywall is causing home problems, health woes

MANATEE — State officials are looking at drywall from China as the likely cause of a putrid odor and failed metal devices, following complaints by homeowners in several Florida counties.

The state has received about 30 complaints from homeowners in Manatee, Sarasota, Pinellas, Martin, St. Lucie, Lee and Collier counties, said Tim Wallace, Florida environmental health program consultant.

Wallace first started hearing about the problem in August when the Sarasota County Health Department contacted the state asking questions about an odd odor in homes.

The state is working with county health departments, asking them to share reports of the problem, he said.

Homeowners complained evaporator coils of air-conditioning equipment prematurely failed, were replaced, and failed again, he said.

Sulfur odor has been associated with erosion on copper in electrical outlets, behind the refrigerator and any other places where metal is in the home.

The odor causes people to experience mild and moderate respiratory irritation that clears up when they leave the homes, said David Krause, a state toxicologist.

Individuals in the homes are concerned whether the odor will cause long-term health conditions.

“There is a very limited amount of data and we’re still investigating that aspect,” Krause said.

If homeowners suspect they have a problem, they are urged to notify their local health department, he said.

An environmental health specialist for the county who also acts as a consultant for seven other counties first discovered the problem in a home in Fort Myers when there was no reasonable explanation for the sulfur smell, said Chuck Henry, environmental health administrator for Sarasota County Health Department.

As more reports of mild respiratory problems began to come in, they realized that it might be related to work materials, he said.

Like mold, people react differently to the sulfur odor, depending on a person’s sensitivity, he said. The county, which is working with state and federal officials to determine its effect on humans, is gathering information from people who have experienced the problem.

“It’s really too early to say one way or the other whether there is a potential health problem or not, but it’s certainly a question that needs to be explored and that’s what we’re doing,” he said.

The problem is being reported in homes built after 2004, but it doesn’t include every home, he said.

Kristin Culliton hasn’t lived in her Greenbrook Terrace home in Lakewood Ranch for a year because of a putrid odor she says is caused by drywall from China.

Culliton who experienced a headache and scratchy throat after exposure to the toxic air, was advised by her doctor to move out when she was pregnant with her son, Kaden, now 6 months old.

She has filed a lawsuit in Sarasota County against Taylor Morrison Homes for damages. She believes she will need to replace the drywall, a corroded air conditioning unit and household wiring. The company, she said, offered to install an air filtration system, but she learned from speaking to health officials that it would not resolve the problem.

She learned that the drywall came from China from a warranty representative who went to the home to smell the odor in March.

Culliton is now unemployed and unable to afford attorney fees after she resigned from her position as senior sales associate for Taylor Morrison.

“My life the past year has been an absolute nightmare, and Taylor Morrison has done nothing to take care of the problem,” she said.

Taylor Morrison did not return phone calls Monday.

Other Manatee homes have had similar problems, including homes built by Lennar Homes.

Lennar stepped forward this fall to work with the county on repairing homes after contacting the customers affected by the problem, said John Barnott, director of the Manatee County building department.

“They had a hard time figuring out where the odor was coming from and they finally determined it was the dry wall,” he said.

Several homes identified with the Chinese drywall are in Heritage Harbour, Barnott said.

A county building inspector has been assigned to inspect the homes for plumbing, electrical, and structural integrity to ensure the homes are repaired properly.

Lennar’s investigation in southwest Florida showed an independent contractor installed the drywall from China in some of the homes built between November 2005 and November 2006, according to a released statement by Darin McMurray, Lennar division president.

The developer hired Environ International, a global environmental firm, to take extensive air samples in about 50 homes. The levels of the sulfur compound were found to be lower than governmental health and safety standards, which does put homeowners at risk, the release said.

“Lennar has been working with our homeowners on long-term solutions based on the specific testing of their homes,” McMurray said. “Our first concern is our homeowners. Lennar will continue to stand by our homes and work closely with homeowners to resolve their concerns.”

Jessica Klipa, Herald staff reporter, can be reached at 708-7906.