Tainted drywall from China is driving owners from their homes
A toxic substance is suspected of causing corrosion, health problems, and foul odors, bringing lawsuits and calls for government action.
There was something that always bothered Rene Galvin when she walked in the front door of her new condo - an eye-watering, rotten egg smell that clung to the four walls and everything contained within them, from the furniture to her carpet and clothes.Skip to next paragraph
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She could never quite put her finger on the cause of the foul odor that seemed to pervade every pore. "I'd just stand there, look around and say to myself: 'One day, I'll find out whatever it is that died inside these walls'," she says.
But there were further problems to come; mirrors that corroded around the edges, drains that rusted on the baths, pitted faucets, the television, computer, dishwasher, coffee pot, telephones, and air-conditioning system that all inexplicably broke down. Even the treasured gold-dipped necklace she wore around her neck turned black. Then there were the headaches, throat and sinus troubles.
"I had no idea what was going on. I thought 'Boy, the Florida air sure is bad'," she says with a wry laugh.
Humor, though, is not something that comes easily these days when she talks about her $500,000 home in Bonita Springs, Florida, that now sits empty after it was found to contain contaminated drywall from China.
The discovery of sulfur-emitting compounds within the imported construction materials has sparked a national investigation, numerous lawsuits, and a scandal that is feared to have affected as many as 100,000 homes, a majority so far in Florida. Reparations could run into the billions of dollars.
So dire is the situation – with US suppliers and builders reluctant to take the heat, the overseas manufacturer resisting liability, and insurance companies denying claims, while victims are faced with having their homes gutted if not entirely bulldozed – that lawmakers are pushing for a state of emergency to be declared in Florida, to start the flow of federal financial aid.
"This is an acute and growing crisis," US Rep. Robert Wexler (D) urged the state's governor, Charlie Crist, in a letter, noting serious health and safety implications. "This is a significant statewide problem whose devastating impact on families and our state is similar to a natural disaster such as a hurricane, fire or flood."
Over 500 million pounds of drywall were imported from China between 2004 and 2007 when the construction boom was at a peak and domestic materials in short supply, with demand exacerbated by the reconstruction programs that followed hurricanes Katrina and Wilma.
Knauf Tianjin – the main Chinese manufacturer so far singled out for blame – says it was responsible for only around 20 percent of that supply, and the firm complains that because it was the only company that stamped its name on its product that it is being unfairly targeted.
Laboratory tests carried out for Florida's Department of Health showed that samples of Chinese-made drywall - including Knauf's - contained strontium sulfide, which gives a rotten egg odor when moistened and reacts with hydrogen in the air to take on corrosive powers capable of eating through metals and electrical wires.
"This is a noxious, pungent chemical compound. If it can corrode metals in your house, I hate to think what it's doing to residents and their children and pets," said Jordan Chaikin of Florida legal firm Parker Waichman Alonso, which has launched a federal class-action lawsuit against Knauf in the US District Court in Fort Myers.
"People are stuck with these homes, they can't afford to leave, they put their life's savings into them or they're mortgaged and they're turning to builders for help," he said. "But in some cases builders have filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy so there can be no claims against them. Some homes need to be bulldozed, in other cases gutted entirely, and that's very expensive for builders."