Capitol Hill tackles Chinese drywall

WASHINGTON — Senators and federal regulators joined hands Thursday in efforts to resolve health and structural problems linked to the use of Chinese drywall in thousands of new homes.

“We’ve got to get to the bottom of this because our people are potentially in danger,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., whose state has 35,000 to 50,000 potentially affected homes.

“We are all homeowners and we understand the urgency of the issue,” concurred Lori Saltzman, the division director of the Office of Health Services for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the agency heading the drywall investigation.

Members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance said they’d seek $2 million in emergency help mainly to make the research go faster. Saltzman said her agency and others would move quickly without waiting for the money.

The urgent cooperation follows complaints from residents in 16 states — principally Florida and Louisiana but including Texas, California, Washington state and the Carolinas — of a “rotten egg” smell, corroding metals and ailments such as persistent coughs and itchy eyes. Residents and Consumer Product Safety Commission investigators think that these problems are linked to drywall produced in China.

Nelson told the panel about a single, unemployed mother from Manatee, Kristin Culliton, 37, who was told by her obstetrician that she needed to vacate her home on Skip Jack Loop in Greenbrook Terrace, Lakewood Ranch. She’s moved in with her mother, Nelson said, but she’s still making mortgage payments of $1,174 a month on the abandoned home.

“I was asked to be the homeowners’ representative speaking before Congress today, but I couldn’t afford the trip,” Culliton told the Bradenton Herald late Thursday.

She called “awesome” legislators’ push for $2 million research money. Her lawyer is using her as “the representative for a federal, class-action lawsuit” against builders.

Most of the affected homes were built in 2006 and 2007 after severe hurricanes exhausted supplies of U.S. drywall. Builders turned to China, buying enough drywall to cover the state of Rhode Island, according to Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the subcommittee’s chairman.

Environmental Protection Agency lab findings released Tuesday showed that the Chinese drywall contained sulfur compounds and other chemicals that aren’t in U.S.-made drywall. The next step, EPA officials said, is to see whether the compounds and the complaints are linked.

Saltzman said the research included testing domestic and Chinese drywall under climate conditions like those in the affected states. A strategy for identifying and measuring chemicals in the air under those conditions will be completed by June, she said.

Removal could cost $100,000 per home, said Randy Noel, the president of Reve Inc., a Louisiana home builder.

Richard J. Kampf, of Cape Coral, a retiree suffering from respiratory problems that he said began when he moved into a new $315,000 home with Chinese drywall, was asked how much the house was worth now. He answered, “Zero.”

Kampf described moving into the home in July 2007 with his wife, Patricia. On the first day, the air conditioning went out. In the time since, air conditioner repairmen have been to the house 15 times and have recharged the air conditioner 10 times.In addition to his respiratory problems, Kampf told the subcommittee, he suffers daily nosebleeds and his wife keeps vials of eye drops at her bedside because her eyelids become so dry that they are difficult to open if she wakes up during the night.

— Herald staff writer Duane Marsteller and editor Gary Taylor contributed to this report.

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