Chinese drywall health risk put to test
By MARY WOZNIAK, firstname.lastname@example.org and TOM HAYDEN, email@example.com • February 1, 2009
The state health department's head toxicologist is on the road testing Florida homes for Chinese drywall.
Results of those tests may be available during an informational forum planned for next month to determine whether the drywall is a public health risk, a state legislator and leading area homebuilder said .Dr. David Krause, the state toxicologist, is testing in homes where the controversial drywall was discovered, said Gary Aubuchon, president of Aubuchon Homes and a state representative from Cape Coral. In addition to health concerns, officials are looking at whether the drywall is emitting sulfur-based gases leading to corrosion on copper coils and wiring. The date and place for a forum is yet to be determined, Aubuchon said. "We are conducting the forum with people who are on the front edge of this and to give the public and the builders an opportunity to ask questions," Aubuchon said. "This is such a complex scenario.
The first and most immediate issue: Is there a public health concern? That is what the Florida Department of Health is trying to ascertain right now." Krause was traveling Friday, a state health department spokeswoman said. Efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.
The drywall emits chemical compounds that smell like rotten eggs, corrodes air conditioning and refrigerator coils, pits faucets and eats away other metals and may cause health problems from long-term exposure. Some residents in affected homes have reported respiratory problems, headaches and raspy throats. The drywall is linked mainly to Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co. Ltd. of China. Knauf maintains the drywall is safe. Some building experts say the drywall was imported as early as 2004 and continued through 2007. Knauf said the import started in 2006, when a building boom in the aftermath of hurricanes Wilma and Katrina used up domestic drywall supplies.
The suspect drywall is causing uneasiness and concern across the state because of the economic, environmental and health implications of the issue. Locally, Lew H.D. Lewellyn, owner of American Air Testing in Cape Coral, said he has had calls from Pensacola to Miami about the drywall. Lewellyn spoke before a recent meeting of the Southwest Florida Real Estate Investors Association and was peppered with questions from the audience. "People are really starting to get more and more scared about it," he said. About 10 million sheets of the drywall were imported into Florida, Lewellyn said. "It was still in (supply) yards as recently as six to seven months ago," he said. Lewellyn suspects the next issue to arise will be Chinese drywall used in remodeling older homes. "If this stuff is dangerous to you, no one is stepping up to the plate to say, 'Yes it is,' or 'No it's not,'" Lewellyn said. The News-Press first disclosed the emerging drywall problem in a Dec. 20 story, when Aubuchon confirmed a Fort Myers family had been moved from an Aubuchon home because of a possible problem with the drywall. The family moved from the home and remains in another residence on a six-month lease at his company's expense, Aubuchon said Friday. A test on a piece of Chinese drywall removed from the home did not test positive for high sulfur levels, Aubuchon said. However, the air quality from the second test came back inconclusive, he said. Krause also tested the Aubuchon home, but results were not available. Other tests are ongoing through the homeowner's insurance and builder's general liability insurance, he said. Aubuchon also said his company checked "a handful" of their homes when residents called with concerns, and there has not been a problem with drywall.
Lennar Homes announced Jan. 19 the company had moved residents living in a dozen Southwest Florida homes built by Lennar because of the drywall. Lennar is paying relocation and lodging costs while the drywall is gutted from the homes.
Lennar also has identified 80 of its homes in Southwest Florida that appear to contain the suspect drywall and is investigating 40 more, according to a statement from Darin McMurray, division president. Florida Health Department officials say they have documented 28 complaints across seven counties, including 11 in Lee and two in Collier. Environmental testing firms, such as Lewellyn's, and other building experts say source of the drywall problem is the waste materials from the scrubbers of coal-fired power plants used to make the drywall in China. The product is called synthetic gypsum. Gypsum is the main ingredient in drywall. But U.S. companies have made synthetic gypsum for years using that process with no problems, said Mike Gardner, executive director of the Gypsum Association, a trade organization representing gypsum board (drywall) manufacturers across the U.S. and Canada.
Knauf Tianjin claimed in a Jan. 9 statement the sulfur smell in its drywall is due to a naturally mined gypsum used to make the drywall, not synthetic gypsum. Knauf said another, unnamed Chinese company is manufacturing the drywall causing the damage. However, testing reports released Jan. 22 by Knauf Tianjin show the Knauf product emits carbonyl sulfide, carbon disulfide and hydrogen sulfide, due to the presence of naturally occurring iron disulfide in the drywall. But the amount emitted is miniscule, below regulations or threshold established to protect the population, said Dr. Phillip T. Goad, toxicologist for the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, the Knauf Tianjin consultant. In fact, human breath has a higher concentration than any carbonyl sulfide or carbon disulfide levels emitted by the drywall, Goad said in an interview with The News-Press. Meanwhile, what the Knauf Tianjin drywall is made of is still unclear. After The News-Press posed several questions about the makeup of the drywall, "the investigation is ongoing" as to whether the drywall is 100 percent natural, a by-product of coal-fired power plants, or a mix of the two, wrote Melisa Chantres, a Knauf Tianjin spokeswoman, in an e-mail sent Tuesday.
Goad said he is sending results of his report to the state health department. Lennar's consultant, Environ International, based in Tampa, also is sending its air sampling reports on the Chinese drywall to the state health department. The tests confirmed the presence of sulfur compounds inside the homes "is far below even the most stringent government health and safety standards," according to Lennar.