This was put out by the Sarasota Herald Tribune and picked up by Tampa Tribune, but I did not see it in the SP Times or online. Had to search. Look what they're making it out of here in the U.S.A.!
SPECIAL REPORT: U.S.-made drywall under fire
By Aaron Kessler
and JOAQUIN SAPIEN, ProPublica
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 15, 2010 at 4:55 p.m.
Click to enlarge
Despite its increasing popularity, synthetic gypsum is not regulated by the federal government. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency supports the reuse of FGD gypsum because it protects the air, recycles waste that would otherwise go to a landfill and creates useful products.
The industry has voluntary standards, but they apply only to fire resistance and strength.
Michael Gardner, executive director of the Gypsum Association, a trade group that represents the drywall industry, said additional oversight is unnecessary. "There has never been a problem with the use of FGD gypsum wallboard since its inception," Gardner said.
At least one of the lawsuits also points to another possible cause: The defective drywall was made with scrap from recycled drywall -- perhaps Chinese drywall.
In September, the Consumer Product Safety Commission commissioned a study of a small group of homes with problematic American drywall, similar to an examination of homes with Chinese board it completed last year. But figuring out what is causing the problems -- and who should pay to fix them -- is likely to be a long and laborious process. After two years of studying Chinese drywall, the agency has not figured out what caused it to release sulfur gases, and the homeowners' lawsuits are still mired in the courts.
The CPSC's main theory in the Chinese drywall cases is that one or several of the mines that supplied manufacturers with natural gypsum contained a high concentration of sulfur. But CPSC inspectors say it also is possible some of the defective Chinese drywall was produced with synthetic gypsum from Chinese power plants.
For homeowners who believe their houses have been contaminated by U.S.-made drywall, the scientific question of what is causing the problem is overshadowed by more immediate questions of financial survival. The CPSC's preliminary guidelines for remediating homes made with defective drywall say all the drywall and electrical wiring should be replaced, an undertaking that can cost $100,000 or more.
"I felt totally and completely alone when we found out we had American drywall," said Julie Mraz, whose Florida home was built with National Gypsum drywall. "I thought, oh my God, now what? I hadn't heard of anyone having problems with it."
Both Mraz and her husband, Joseph, have severe health problems, and the house was built to accommodate Joseph Mraz's wheelchair.
Soon after they moved in, the couple noticed a strong sulfuric smell and the coils on their air-conditioner corroded -- a telltale sign of defective drywall. Joseph Mraz's childhood asthma returned for the first time in almost 30 years. When his breathing became so labored that he had to be hospitalized, doctors urged them to move out of the house. They now rent an apartment, and Julie Mraz said her husband's breathing problems have improved.
FREEFALL TO FORECLOSURE
John and Katherine Kallas, who built their dream home during 2005 in Lehigh Acres, are among more than a dozen people the Herald-Tribune and ProPublica interviewed who say that defective American drywall has upended their lives.
In October 2005, the Kallases began paying a $180,000 mortgage on a home they had built on a lot purchased for $40,000. About a year after they moved in, the hallmark signs of defective drywall began to appear.
They suffered constricted breathing, headaches and other health problems. Their dishwasher broke down, then their refrigerator. The air-conditioner failed soon after its coils corroded.
"A bunch of jewelry kept turning black. I kept cleaning it and it kept turning black. I lost three TVs. My computer crashed. I bought a brand-new one, and then that one crashed, too," Katherine Kallas said.
When a relative called in December 2008 and asked if the Kallases had heard about the Chinese drywall problem, the family became even more confused.
John Kallas immediately climbed into the attic to see if he could find any Chinese trademarks on their drywall. Instead, he found markings for National Gypsum and U.S. Gypsum.
The Kallases hired Miami-based attorney David Durkee, who was recruiting Chinese-drywall victims in Lee County. (Lee has had more drywall problems than any other county in Florida.)
They also sought tax relief from the Lee County property appraiser's office, which lowered the assessed value of their three-bedroom home.
In 2009 the Kallases' builder sent an inspector to examine the house. They soon received a letter confirming their fears.
"Test results confirmed the presence of the effects from sulfide gases and the presence of drywall releasing these gases," the company said in the letter.
Builder K. Hovnanian offered to repair the Kallases' home by removing all the wiring and drywall and then ventilating the house for 14 days before installing new drywall and wiring.
But the Consumer Product Safety Commission had not yet released its repair protocols, and the Kallases worried that the builder's plan might be inadequate. They rejected the offer and in February of this year moved into a rented house.
Katherine Kallas said their attorney "just kind of blew us off from there." When she called Durkee to ask about her case, she said she got updates on the progress of the Chinese drywall litigation.
"I'd have to remind him that I have American drywall, but he doesn't seem interested in going after our manufacturer," she said.
Durkee told the Herald-Tribune and ProPublica that he is not suing National Gypsum or U.S. Gypsum because he is confident he can persuade the Kallases' builder and drywall distributor to compensate them for their losses.
The Kallases could not afford to pay both their rent and their mortgage, so they stopped paying the mortgage. Eventually they received a foreclosure notice from their lender, Wells Fargo. Their home is scheduled to auctioned later this month.
"This is an unfortunate situation and a reminder to all homebuyers that it is important to know everything possible about the materials used in a home before it is purchased," said a Wells Fargo executive in an e-mail to the Herald-Tribune and ProPublica. "We sincerely hope the Kallases are successful in their efforts to resolve their differences with the home builder."
The Kallases now worry that Wells Fargo will force them to pay the difference between what they owed on the house and what it will eventually sell for, which would force them to declare bankruptcy.
"It's terrible. It's very upsetting. We thought we were responsible homeowners. We had never missed a mortgage payment before," Katherine Kallas said.
SCIENCE ON ITS SIDE
In Alva, about a dozen miles from the Kallases, George and Brenda Brincku were trying to figure out what was wrong with the 3,160-square-foot home they had built for themselves and their three children.
From 2006 to 2009, the Brinckus replaced the coils on their air-conditioning units seven times. At one point they demanded that the president of the company that made the air-conditioners visit their home and explain why his product kept breaking down.
Other appliances faltered, too. Two laundry washers, one microwave, two computer printers, smoke alarms, lamps, answering machines, flashlights, cell phones and fans.
They also had health problems. Someone always seemed to be coughing, and nearly everyone had severely irritated eyes. The Brinckus' then-20-year old daughter, Ashley, had frequent bouts of dizziness and once fainted in her room.
After Chinese drywall began making headlines, George Brincku crawled into the attic to check for signs of corrosion. When he emerged he was nauseated for three days and began having frequent nosebleeds.
The Brinckus contacted the Florida Department of Health, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, their homeowner's insurance company and their builder's insurance company. Each time they were told that their house was exhibiting signs of corrosion that are more typically linked to Chinese drywall. But they could not find any Chinese insignias on their board.
The Brinckus eventually learned that most of their drywall was manufactured by National Gypsum, which told them it came from the company's Apollo Beach drywall plant, about 130 miles north near Tampa. Some of the drywall was also made by U.S. Gypsum, but the Brinckus said test results later showed that the U.S. Gypsum board was not releasing gases.
In March 2009, National Gypsum sent 11 people to inspect the Brincku home. The team stayed for a week, removing dozens of pieces of drywall and taking samples of their water. The Brinckus prepared lunch for them almost every day.
"It seemed like they were trying to cut as many samples out of the house as they could to see if they could find some Chinese board," George Brincku said, while taking a reporter through the now vacant home. "By the time they were done the house looked like Swiss cheese."
The case began attracting national attention when CBS News asked the University of Florida to test samples of defective drywall, including samples from the Brincku home.
Timothy Townsend, the environmental engineering professor whose team conducted the tests, said some of the Brinckus' samples released an unusually high amount of sulfur gas. Townsend also tested several pieces of newly purchased American board and found that some released more sulfur than new Chinese drywall that CBS bought in China.
When CBS showed National Gypsum the UF findings, spokeswoman Nancy Spurlock said the company had commissioned its own tests, from Packer Engineering, which showed that its drywall did not produce enough sulfur gas to cause corrosion. ( Corporate tactics like BP)
"We have science on our side now," Spurlock said in a transcribed interview with correspondent Armen Keteyian that CBS News provided to the Herald-Tribune and ProPublica. "We believe that there's no scientific evidence to show that our wallboard, or any domestic wallboard that we know of causes the same problems as corrosive drywall."
But two later tests of the Brinckus' drywall, conducted by environmental engineering firms, backed up the UF results. (Deja vue???)
According to Rimkus Engineering, hired by the Brinckus' insurance company, one sample released carbon disulfide at a concentration of 880 parts per billion. A commercially purchased piece of drywall that Rimkus used as a baseline released less than 50 parts per billion.
The other test was done pro bono by Materials Analytical Services, which was developing a drywall inspection method.
It found that one piece of wallboard from the Brincku home was releasing 120 parts per billion.
Both companies also found that some pieces of drywall in the Brincku house were not releasing much gas at all, which was not surprising given that many homes are built with several brands of drywall.
In a recent interview with the Herald-Tribune and ProPublica, Spurlock said National Gypsum still stands by its claim that its drywall is not releasing sulfur at levels that can cause corrosion. She suggested instead that corrosion found in homes built with National Gypsum might be caused by sulfuric water, which is common in Florida.
But according to copies of the Packer Engineering tests obtained by the Herald-Tribune and ProPublica, none of the 21 water samples Packer took from the Brincku home had high amounts of sulfur.
The Brinckus' case against National Gypsum has been put on hold by Miami-based federal Judge Jose Martinez, who has determined that a similar lawsuit filed against National Gypsum in Arizona should be heard first.
Meanwhile, the Brinckus are trying to avoid foreclosure. Last week they got some good news: Their lender, Fannie Mae, agreed to defer their loan payments until April 30.
According to court documents filed by the Brinckus' attorneys, 93 families now claim that drywall from National Gypsum's Apollo Beach drywall plant is causing the problems in their homes.
The lawsuit alleges that the FGD gypsum in the drywall has something to do with the outgassing.
It also says that some recycled scrap drywall, perhaps Chinese drywall, may have been mixed in with the FGD gypsum.
But Spurlock, the company spokeswoman, said the Apollo Beach plant does not use recycled drywall.
Apollo Beach uses FGD gypsum provided by Big Bend, a nearby coal-fired power plant operated by TECO Energy, a Tampa-based electric utility company. TECO did not return calls for comment on this story, but its website says its FGD gypsum also is used in concrete and fertilizer.
Although the federal government does not regulate drywall, the EPA has spent the last two years drafting rules on the ash produced by coal-fired power plants, which forms the synthetic gypsum used in drywall.
According to the EPA, several kinds of coal ash are produced when coal is burned to generate energy. Some types are potentially hazardous, including the toxic sludge that in 2008 spilled into a Tennessee community from a 1.1 billion gallon waste pond.
Other types of coal ash, including FGD gypsum, are considered relatively harmless.
A draft of the EPA's proposed rule includes tighter regulations for the disposal of some forms of coal ash, but would exempt FGD gypsum.
The draft said that the coal ash used in building products and fertilizer "can be beneficially reused," and "no documented cases of damage to human health or the environment have been identified."
But the proposed rule notes that the EPA did not conduct specific risk assessments for the use of coal ash in building materials and acknowledges that the ash could become problematic if improved scrubbing technologies remove more contaminants from the air. Most of the EPA's past research into the reuse of gypsum has been done in conjunction with the gypsum industry, through its Coal Combustion Products Partnership.
National Gypsum and the Gypsum Association have hired teams of lobbyists to try to shape the EPA's new rules.
Spurlock said the manufacturers fear that labeling any form of coal ash hazardous will create a "negative stigma" about FGD gypsum, and that customers will be afraid to buy drywall made from it.
"In their mind, it's still hazardous so there is potential liability there. Anyone can sue for anything," Spurlock said.
Currently, the only standards that apply to drywall are voluntary guidelines for strength and fire resistance set by a committee consisting mostly of drywall manufacturers and builders. The committee is part of the American Society for Testing and Materials, an industry association that develops voluntary standards for a wide variety of products.
Thomas O'Toole, staff manager for the ASTM's drywall committee, said no standards have been set for sulfur gas release because "it was never a problem before. It wasn't brought to our attention until 2008."
But that could change.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission recently began talking with the committee about developing standards that would help prevent future problems of this kind.
Gardner, the Gypsum Association executive director, said his organization will be closely involved in those discussions.
Among the many mysteries surrounding the American drywall problem is the one unfolding just outside Palm Springs, Calif., in the town of Indio.
In the last year, two homeowners have abandoned their modest tract homes because they say their U.S.-made drywall was releasing so much sulfur gas that it made their eyes burn, caused bloody noses and constricted their breathing.
The prevailing theory about defective drywall, Chinese or American, is that it affects only homes in hot, humid regions because the combination of heat and humidity exacerbates the release of the sulfur gases.
But Indio is in the California desert, where rain is rare and humidity practically nonexistent. While the families have complained of health problems, their homes show few signs of corrosion, aside from some discoloration on metal fixtures.
Preliminary tests, which the families had done by Assured Bio, an environmental engineering firm, and provided to the Herald-Tribune and ProPublica, show that their drywall is releasing sulfur gas at levels similar to that of Chinese drywall.
The president of Assured Bio, Dr. Edward Sobek, said that while the tests raised concerns, another round of more sophisticated analysis needs to be done to determine whether the board corrodes metal.
Those tests can cost hundreds of dollars and usually are not completed unless a homeowner is planning to sue.
But the Palm Springs families have had so much trouble finding lawyers that they have given up on that idea.
"Everyone was hot to trot on the Chinese drywall, but attorneys don't seem to want to have anything to do with American drywall cases," said Kanda Simon.
She and her husband abandoned their retirement home this year. In August they got a foreclosure notice.
"I'm mad. I'm angry. I think it's all very unfair, but I just don't have the fight in me," Simon said.
Simon said she and her husband did not complain to their builder, Miami-based Lennar Corp., because their neighbor Robin Ely had such a difficult time dealing with the company.
Ely said she noticed a chemical smell in her home a few months after she moved in. When she complained to Lennar, she said she was told there could not possibly be anything wrong with her house, because it was built with American drywall.
Lennar already is remediating homes it built in Florida with defective Chinese drywall. A spokesman told the Herald-Tribune and ProPublica that the company tested the Indio homes and "found no evidence of similar characteristics or concerns."
Ely said Lennar did a visual inspection of her home in 2009, looking for obvious signs of corrosion. She later received a letter saying "we are pleased to report that our thorough inspection of your Home has confirmed that there is no indication that the drywall in your Home is defective."
Lennar later hired an environmental engineering firm to test Ely's drywall, and Lennar told Ely the firm concluded that it was not problematic. Lennar would not share its test results with Ely or the Herald-Tribune and ProPublica.
Ely tried to get legal help from a San Diego-based firm, Fuller Jenkins.
At first, she said the firm was helpful and offered to inspect her home. But when it discovered that her board was made in the U.S. and not China, Ely said interest waned.
Craig Fuller, a partner with Fuller Jenkins, told the Herald-Tribune and ProPublica that he "can't comment on the case at this time" because his firm is still actively investigating and has not filed a lawsuit yet.
When asked if she was trying to find help elsewhere, Ely said, "I want to, but I'm just so overwhelmed. I just can't even deal with it."
In July Ely, who has Parkinson's disease, moved into a rented apartment in Tennessee.
She is trying to persuade her bank to defer the payments on her Palm Springs home, which is now scheduled for foreclosure on Dec. 23.