Florida Health Officials Knew of Chinese Drywall Problems For Months

Health officials in Florida first began fielding complaints about problems linked to defective Chinese drywall this summer, but did not alert the public. According to a report on News-Press.com, the department instead coordinated with a builder and its consultant to determine how and when the Chinese drywall issue would be made public.

As we’ve been reporting for the past several months, owners of newer homes in South Florida have been complaining of drywall that smells like rotten eggs. In many cases, residents have had to leave their home because the smell was so bad. In addition to the putrid smell, many South Florida homeowners have reported problems with air conditioning and other systems that are likely related to the defective Chinese drywall. Some spent hundreds – even thousands of dollars – to have air conditioning, pipes and wiring repaired. People living in the homes have also reported respiratory and sinus symptoms. Sulfur gasses emitted from the drywall have been cited as a cause of all of the problems.

According to News-Press, the Lee County Health Department received its first drywall complaint in late August. Emails between Jim Love, county environmental health director, and Dr. Judith Hartner, the head of the Lee County Health Department, show the two discussed the issue. Yet, when News-Press asked Hartner about Chinese drywall in December, she claimed not to have heard of any problems.

By August, Lennar Homes and its consultant, Environ International, were investigating drywall complaints and testing homes. Emails indicate that the state health department and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allowed Lennar homes a great deal of leeway in determining when the drywall issues would be made public.

One email sent from an EPA official to the department in November advised that “‘Sweeps Week’ is coming this month. It might allow the TV news to be more sensational, but I think we will want to put the word out through the media this month – so that we (and the responsible home builder) can control the message, instead of it being ‘exposed’ (People poisoned! DOH does nothing!) by some TV station and breaking nationally.”

A second November email from the same official suggested that public notification should be coordinated with Lennar. “Gentlemen, I’d like to suggest that we offer to coordinate publicity with the Lab and this builder (Lennar and Environ) ” the email said. “I am getting calls from homeowners about other builders, and predict that this story will break soon.”

While the EPA was pressing the Florida Health Department to coordinate with Lennar, the Health Department was in a dispute with Environ over the way it characterized its testing. At an October 2 meeting with the Florida Health Department, Environ’s representatives said its testing had determined the drywall didn’t pose a health issue, News-Press said. In November, Environ issued its own memo of the October meeting, which appeared to indicated that state and county health officials had agreed with Environ’s assessment that there was no health threat.

But emails from the Florida Health Department indicate this was far from the case. In November, the department asked Environ for its data, so it could reach its own conclusions. Environ refused, and basically told the health department that it did not want its opinion on the investigation, News-Press said.

Environ did eventually relent, and sent some – but not all – of its data to the health department in late December. But now, having seen the data, the health department’s toxicologists claims to have more “confidence” in Environ’s findings, News-Press said.

It wasn’t until January – months after it was notified of the first drywall complaints – that the Florida Health Department began an active investigation. In the meantime, the public had finally learned that there was a problem. But the news didn’t not come from the Florida Health Department or any other public official. Instead, the Chinese drywall story was broken by News-Press on December 19.

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