Monday, November 02, 2009

Toxic Drywall: All the Housing Market Needs

As if Florida homeowners didn't have enough to worry about already since many of them are "under water" financially, a recent report I heard on National Public Radio revealed that many thousands of houses in Florida and at least six other states may have been built with toxic drywall imported from China. People living in these houses have reported many kinds of health problems, ranging from acute sinus infections to nosebleeds and insomnia. Besides the health hazards, anything made of copper in these houses tends to turn black and often fails. Think wiring, plumbing, and air conditioning coils. How can something like this happen, and what can be done about it?

The "how" is fairly easy to answer, at least in general terms. Drywall is a sandwich made of cardboard surfaces on either side of a core made of partly dehydrated calcium sulfate, otherwise known as gypsum. Although there are places where you can mine gypsum, increasingly the material is obtained from flue-gas desulfurization plants associated with coal-fired power generation. Coal with a lot of sulfur in it releases the sulfur when it's burned, and if you don't de-sulfurize the flue gas that results, you get a terrible air pollution problem. Scrubbers can capture the sulfur, but the byproduct is a lot of sulfate stuff which can be purified into calcium sulfate by processes I have no clue about, not being a chemist.

But I can easily imagine that if someone who wanted to profit from the hot market in drywall caused by the building boom earlier in this decade got careless about converting impure flue-gas-derived gypsum to calcium sulfate suitable for making drywall, they might accidentally leave in some chemicals (such as iron sulfide in an acidic matrix) that, upon getting moist, would release hydrogen sulfide. And hydrogen sulfide is very nasty stuff. Its toxicity is comparable to hydrogen cyanide, which is what California used to use in it gas chamber for executions. Nobody wants to live in a gas chamber.

Something like this apparently happened in China when a good amount of Chinese drywall was imported to the U. S. and used in several states to build houses. If this hypothesis is correct, the first place you'd expect to hear about problems is where the average humidity is highest, and that's Florida. Sure enough, as long ago as 2004 complaints began to emerge in that state about weird rotten-egg odors, blackened and failing copper air-conditioner tubing, and wiring faults. Although the Environmental Protection Agency has reportedly investigated the problem, their findings are "not conclusive," so any redress from the government will be delayed if it arrives at all.

That's probably how it happened; now, what to do?

The parties involved are: the Chinese manufacturers of the defective drywall, the importing and marketing firms that sold the stuff in the U. S., the builders who used it to build houses, the homeowners who live in these houses, the financial institutions holding mortgages on the houses, the insurance companies insuring the houses, and various governmental regulatory agencies whose responsibilities touch on a problem like this. Already you can see the legal tangles just waiting to happen. Because of the lack of recourse many homeowners have run up against, someone has organized a Chinese Drywall Complaint Center that acts as a clearinghouse for information and news on the problem. Misery may love company, but that doesn't get rid of the toxic drywall.

This is an example of how a novel problem can take longer to solve than one we've dealt with before. As far as I know, the only similar situation involved polyurethane insulation that emitted formaldehyde gas or other toxic materials. Formaldehyde is not something you want to smell a lot of either, but it's not nearly as toxic as hydrogen sulfide. And it doesn't leave physical traces behind like blackened pipes and wiring. Another complicating factor is that the defect doesn't show up immediately. Evidently months or years of exposure to high humidity brings out the problem, and so builders who bought the defective drywall and installed it promptly can legitimately claim they had no idea it would do this. On the other hand, if the stuff fell off the ceiling as soon as they put it in, they would have known something was wrong immediately. So there is the time-bomb aspect to the situation as well.

Any time an international border appears between the perpetrators of a wrong and the victims, things are more complicated than otherwise, and that is the case here as well. Probably some rough justice will happen as the next importer of Chinese drywall finds that their market has disappeared, but that is unfair to the Chinese drywall manufacturers who are doing things right, assuming there are some. Unfortunately, in the rather xenophobic United States, most people think of China in simplistic terms and don't consider that it's at least as complicated as the U. S., if not more. But the Wild-West aspect of China's economy makes it hard for its government to enforce any kind of uniform regulations or safety codes, with the result that a few grossly negligent firms can put lead paint on children's toys, or melamine plastic in pet food, or hydrogen-sulfide-emitting compounds in drywall and get away with it, at least until the newshounds get involved. And then the whole country gets a black eye that only a minority of companies deserve.

As for the consumers who are stuck with toxic drywall, they still have few recourses. Not enough is known about the problem even to recommend a remediation strategy. It's pretty clear that tearing out all the old drywall in a house and putting in new non-toxic wallboard would probably cost more than tearing down the whole place and rebuilding from scratch. So insurance companies, builders, and even the government agencies involved are reluctant to pay for or recommend such an extreme course. What may happen is that people will simply walk away from such houses, many of which are underwater anyway, and take the consequences. Which won't help the banks any.

In the meantime, if you're looking to buy a cheap foreclosed home, take a look at the copper fixtures in it first. If you see any black corrosion, it's probably not a bargain after all.

Sources: Text relating to the NPR report on this subject is available at As long ago as last March, Time Magazine posted an online article on the subject at,8599,1887059,00.html. The Chinese Drywall Complaint Center website is Http://ChineseDrywallComplaintCenter.Com/. I also used material from the Wikipedia articles on drywall and hydrogen sulfide.


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  2. The Chinese Art of War is by stealth. The bogus swine flu pandemic is being used to inject nanoparticle monitoring chips (made from aborted babies) which also have the ability to dissuade patriots from religious belief. Designed by Chaoyang geneticists, they will be used to make the white race servile and sterile while creating a front for our occupation by Chinese drones, disguised as health workers. China has just started using biologically cloned humanoid drones in its factories and military to counter population aging from one child policy. This biocloning was started by Tong Dizhou in the early 1990s to produce star athletes and organ parts but was later taken up by the PLA military. The clones are grown in the wombs of slave women from allied African dictators and have been known to appear on American soil as illegal workers. These illegal workers have special implant chips which relay data obtained from Chinese spyware in our televisions and computers to be used to supress Americans opposed to Chinese hegemony. They are also used in special calculator chips that allow Chinese to cheat on standardized exams by having a committee work on the exam at the same time. Food and Drug Administration investigators say the Chinese spiked pet food with melamine so that they would appear in tests to have more value as protein products. They sell drywall which emit suflide fumes!  Given their blatant disregard for American safey in products they sell, because they don't care if we stay alive after we enrich them, it is worrisome that these clones have not been adequately tested for potential disease transmission. Why aren't anti-American professulas who were hawking phoney Japanese "quality" complaining about their fellow reds in China?  China has always believed in war by stealth, in avoid open conflict, stabbing you in the back while full of smiles. When they found they nature ninnies willing to buy up poisonous herbs as dietary supplements, they decided to sell more wholesale poisons as well!