Nelson rips feds handling drywall

WASHINGTON — A frustrated Sen. Bill Nelson declared Thursday that federal investigators are moving too slowly on Chinese drywall, as the number of complaints continues to rise in Florida and the state’s attorney general is warning that the issue has attracted scam artists.

Emerging from a private briefing with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nelson again called for the firing of the commission’s acting chairwoman. He also pressed President Barack Obama to put the drywall issue “at the top of his agenda” when he visits China this summer.

“I asked how harmful is it and they said, ‘We’ve got to wait ’til the end of our study,’ ” said Nelson, a Florida Democrat who has proposed a temporary ban and recall of Chinese-made drywall. “But when are you going to have some definitive information?’’

Homeowners in Manatee County and elsewhere in Florida have complained to state health officials in recent months about Chinese drywall installed in their homes. Residents say the drywall emits a foul odor, has ruined electrical outlets, air conditioners and metal jewelry, and caused wheezing, nosebleeds and other health problems.

The Florida Department of Health has received 302 complaints as of Thursday, with a dozen coming in the past week. There are 31 complaints from Manatee, but none recently.

Nancy Nord, the commission’s chairwoman, said her agency “moved rapidly’’ after the first reports, pulling together a number of agencies and dispatching an investigator to Florida.

“Our agency has taken the issue very seriously since day one,’’ she said in an interview outside the hearing room. “We’ve been working diligently to get to the bottom of the situation. Obviously when people are getting sick just by living in their homes, that’s of worry to the agency and to me personally.’’

She declined to comment on Nelson’s call for her termination. Nelson, though, says he is disappointed the federal agencies haven’t estimated how widespread the problem is or offered immediate relief for homeowners. He repeated his call for Nord’s firing later Thursday, when he and Obama hosted the University of Florida’s champion football team.

“I suggested to them this is an enormous problem, people’s health is at risk . . . . We can’t wait around much longer,’’ Nelson said. “What we’ve got to do is continue to demand answers.”

Joe Martyak, the commission’s chief of staff, said they are working as fast as they can and recognize the need to determine just how serious a health risk, if any, the drywall poses.

“We are aggressively going after the problem, it’s just that the science doesn’t know what is causing the problem,” he said later in a phone interview. “We all want those answers yesterday, but it’s not going to happen in the short term . . . . Everyone is engaged, everyone knows it’s urgent.”

Also Thursday, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum issued a consumer advisory against Chinese drywall-related scams.

His office has received complaints of bogus test kits to determine the presence of the defective drywall and of “quick-cure” remedies that don’t work or could make the problem worse, he said.

Homeowners who suspect they have defective Chinese drywall should contact their builder or a qualified air conditioner technician to conduct a professional visual inspection, McCollum’s office said. Chinese drywall’s presence can’t be detected by testing the air, as some of the fake test kits purport to do.

Nor can any spray or ozone generator solve the problem, and can accelerate the corrosion process by adding moisture and chemicals, he said.

Homeowners also should be wary of cold calls and door-to-door solicitation by unqualified drywall “experts,” McCollum said.

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