During the housing boom, more than 500 million pounds of possibly defective Chinese drywall was imported to the U.S. According to the Associated Press, that was enough material to build around 100,000 homes. The Chinese drywall was likely used throughout the country, and it could be years before the true scale of the problem is known.
Chinese drywall reportedly emits sulfur fumes that produce a â€œrotten eggsâ€ odor and cause metals, such as air conditioning coils, to corrode. The fumes have also been associated with respiratory and sinus problems in some residents. In some homes, the drywall problems have been so severe that families have had to move, and some builders have begun gutting and replacing drywall in the buildings.
In Florida, where drywall complaints first surfaced, tests conducted by the state health department found that samples of Chinese drywall contained higher levels of sulfuric and organic compounds than an American-made sample. The Chinese samples contained traces of strontium sulfide while the American sample did not. Strontium sulfide is a gray powder that emits a hydrogen sulfide, or â€œrotten eggs,â€ odor when exposed to moist air. The three Chinese samples also contained higher levels of hydrogen sulfide, carbonyl sulfide, and carbon disulfide than the American drywall. All of these compounds are potentially toxic, and carbon disulfide in liquid form is extremely flammable.
Usually, drywall is manufactured in the U.S., but the rebuilding necessitated by the devastating 2006 hurricane season, and housing boom that was occurring at the same time, prompted many builders to buy drywall from China. Investigators are still trying to determine how much drywall was imported. According to the Associated Press, between 2004 and 2008, 540 million pounds of Chinese drywall entered the U.S. In 2006 alone, enough Chinese drywall was imported to build 34,000 homes.
So far, most of the drywall complaints have come from southern states, where a warm, humid climate encourages the emission of sulfur fumes. The Florida Health Department has received over 150 complaints so far, though experts say as many as 35,000 homes may have used the material. In Louisiana, there have been at least 350 reports. Complaints have also come from Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina.
But it is likely Chinese drywall was used elsewhere. In dryer, cooler areas of the country, it could be years before homeowners begin seeing the problems associated with the material.
No one knows yet why the drywall is emitting sulfur fumes. According to the Associated Press, the fact that it was made with fly ash – a waste product of coal burning – could provide a clue. The process of “scrubbing” the smokestack emissions creates calcium sulfate, or gypsum, which can then used to make drywall. In the U.S., drywall is also made from fly ash, but the material is taken from the smokestack, where it is scrubbed. This produces a cleaner product. But in China, the fly ash may have been obtained before it made its way to the smokestack. according to the Associated Press, this creates a “less refined” product.
So far, no one knows if people exposed to Chinese drywall face long-term health consequences. The Florida Health Department says more testing is needed. But according to the Associated Press, the Centers for Disease Control says prolonged exposure to the compounds found in the drywall, especially high levels of carbon disulfide, can cause breathing problems, chest pains and even death; and can affect the nervous system.
The situation has prompted calls for government intervention. The governors of both Florida and Louisiana have asked the feds to step in, and the Consumer Products Safety Commission is in Florida testing drywall. Bills have been introduced in both houses of the U.S. Congress calling for a recall and a ban on Chinese drywall. Others are advocating for financial assistance for homeowners dealing with drywall problems.