State probe into drywall opened

MANATEE — The Florida Attorney General’s office has launched an investigation into potentially tainted Chinese drywall, it confirmed Monday.

The state’s top prosecutor is investigating whether two companies at the center of the controversy — Knauf Plasterboard Tianjian and L&W Supply Corp. — committed any deceptive sales or marketing practices.

A spokesman for Knauf, a German company whose Chinese drywall subsidiary has been an early focus, said the company “is cooperating fully” in the investigation. A spokeswoman for USG Corp., L&W Supply’s parent company, did not immediately return a voice message.

The attorney general’s office declined further comment except saying it is a civil investigation. A state health official said during a teleconference call with reporters that he has been consulting with its Bureau of Economic Crimes.

State toxicologist Dr. David Krause also said limited laboratory testing hasn’t yet shown whether sulfuric-gas emissions or metal corrosion linked to some brands of Chinese-made drywall is a health threat.

“We have not yet identified any concerns that chemicals in the drywall are at a level that would pose a significant health risk,” he said. “That’s not to say we’re saying it’s safe.”

He also cast doubt on the findings of an environmental consultant hired by Lennar, one of the builders that used suspected defective drywall, that said it posed no threat to indoor-air quality. That study was limited, and a broader study is needed, Krause said.

He also urged anyone who thinks he or she may be experiencing health issues possibly caused by drywall to talk to their primary doctors.

Krause’s employer, the Florida Department of Health, is among several local, state and federal agencies investigating complaints from more than 150 homeowners in Manatee County and elsewhere. Those homeowners say Chinese drywall in their homes smells like sulfur, has corroded metal air-conditioning parts and jewelry, and caused headaches, difficulty breathing and other health problems.

Other agencies investigating include federal and state environmental agencies, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is testing the drywall to see if it can be safely disposed in landfills.

Limited testing on Chinese and American drywall samples from Florida homes found the Chinese ones had higher levels of sulfuric compounds, and contained between 5 and 15 percent organic material while the U.S.-made sample had less than 1 percent. The Chinese drywall also emitted sulfuric gasses when subjected to heat and moisture, according to the lab that conducted the testing on behalf of state health officials.

That’s probably why the issue first surfaced in South and Southwest Florida, where heat and humidity are higher, Krause said. He also said the lab’s findings contradict a theory, put forth by a law firm representing homeowners who are suing Knauf and/or their builders, that the Chinese drywall contained waste ash from coal-fired plants.

The health agency plans to collect more samples of drywall and corroded metal air-conditioning parts for more in-depth testing, Krause said.

“It has not been determined yet which ones we’ll go to next,” he said, adding the decision likely will be made in the next 30 days.

That testing should allow officials to calculate an emission rate of sulfuric gasses from the drywall and determine levels of indoor-air contamination, he said.

There’s no timetable for determining if the drywall poses a health risk.

“This won’t happen overnight,” Krause said. “Gypsum drywall is not a simple product. It’s like unbaking a cake.”

Knauf issued a statement saying it is cooperating with health officials’ investigation, but that it was too early to draw any conclusions from the lab’s findings. The company also noted it imported 20 percent of Chinese drywall in 2006, and that other Chinese manufacturers also are being investigated.

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