US senators call for Chinese drywall probe
By Peter J Brown

In early June, four prominent United States senators notified the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) that firm action needs to be taken by the CPSC over mounting evidence that drywall imported from China is causing damage to thousands of US homes and adversely impacting the health of thousands. The CPSC has acknowledged that the commission had received 360 complaints by the time the letter arrived.

Drywall is known by many names, including gypsum board, plasterboard, and wallboard. In homes around the world, it is used to form interior walls and ceilings. Drywall is manufactured by placing gypsum, a very soft mineral, between two sheets of paper and then drying it in a kiln.

Approximately a week after the letter arrived at the CPSC, 10 separate class action lawsuits in three states involving drywall imported from China were combined into a single legal proceeding under a US federal judge in New Orleans. The case is known as "Chinese-Manufactured Drywall Products Liability Litigation" and it brings together eight lawsuits from Florida, one from Ohio, and one from Louisiana.

In addition to these lawsuits, more than 60 other similar lawsuits have been identified and will ultimately be included as well.

A Chinese company, Knauf Plasterboard (Tianjin) Co Ltd (KPT) is named in three of these 10 lawsuits, and Knauf Gips KG is named in four of the lawsuits. Both are part of Knauf, a German conglomerate. Various US builders and drywall distributors are also named.

However, another Chinese company which has been linked to this tainted drywall phenomenon stands out from the rest. It is state-owned Beijing New Building Material PLC (BNBM) which holds a controlling interest in Taishan Gypsum Co Ltd, also known as Taian Taishan Plasterboard and Shandong Taihe Dongxin Co Ltd, according to the Sarasota (Florida) Herald-Tribune.

Not only is BNBM conducting its own investigation, but the CPSC and China's General Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) are also exchanging information about what is happening, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. There are reports that a mine in Shandong province is the source of the problem, but this has not been verified. [1]

In their letter, the four US senators make it clear that they are not going to stand by and await the outcome of the complex legal battle shaping up in New Orleans. These senators want something to happen now, and they have "directed" the CPSC "to expedite its investigation and testing "of the drywall products in question ... and to carry out the Chinese drywall investigation without delay".

The senators wrote:
Since 2006, more than 550 million pounds of drywall have been imported from the People's Republic of China. On May 21, 2009, the Commission's Director of the Division of Health Sciences testified that since December 22, 2008, the Commission has received over 320 complaints about problems associated with drywall from China. The Director stated that these complaints include: structural effects on homes, such as metal corrosion in air conditioning units, copper pipes and electrical wiring; as well as health effects on homeowners, such as unexplained nosebleeds, insomnia, skin irritation and asthma. These complaints have been lodged by homeowners in 16 states and the District of Columbia.
Last Thursday, a one-day conference was held in New Orleans entitled, "Chinese Drywall Litigation". Dozens of lawyers and experts were in attendance. One of the speakers, Dr Patricia Williams, is a leading toxicologist and president of Louisiana-based Environmental Toxicology Experts, LLC. She is also an associate professor at the University of New Orleans, and she has been hired by two law firms to help represent their clients who are plaintiffs in the above-mentioned lawsuits.

Williams finds many things unusual with the drywall imported from China.

"Chinese drywall generates a continuous release of particles. Residents complain of copious amounts of dust that when removed from surfaces reappears in a few hours. Smoke alarms are set off frequently in the same houses due to the dust particles that circulate in the ambient air," said Williams.

Another problem, according to Williams, is that "Chinese drywall has a filler that contains concentrated heavy metals from a coal source. Analytical chemists are evaluating the filler and possible coal sources are coal mining wastes and/or coal fly ash. These heavy metals are toxic and when inhaled can concentrate in the body. Strontium is one of the concentrated heavy metals."

"Strontium is believed to be responsible for the release of the sulfurous gas emissions. The most commonly detected sulfur compounds that are emitted include: carbon disulfide, sulfur dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide. The concentration of strontium is two-10 times greater in Chinese drywall samples that have been tested by our analytical chemist than in US drywall," added Williams. "US drywall is free of sulfur compounds and does not emit these gases."

Besides the CPSC, which has been named as the lead US federal agency for this investigation, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also active, working with both the CPSC and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (CDC-ATSDR). According to an EPA analysis conducted earlier this year at the request of the CDC-ATSDR, "sulfur was detected at 83 parts per millions (ppm) and 119 ppm in the Chinese drywall samples. Sulfur was not detected in the four US-manufactured drywall samples ... Strontium was detected at 2,570 ppm and 2,670 ppm in the Chinese drywall samples. Strontium was detected in the US-manufactured drywall at 244 ppm to 1,130 ppm."

What concerns Williams is that the general public does not have a good understanding of the threat posed by this drywall.

"The general public as well as some of the residents in the houses with the drywall do not understand the acute and chronic health effects of the gases and particles released by the drywall as well as the safety risks of the sulfurous erosion of electrical wiring," said Williams. "The health effects range from acute exposure irritation effects to chronic exposure systemic effects such as asthma attacks, stroke, neurological damage, Parkinson disease, lung damage, and much more."

Williams points to other possible toxicants that are known to occur in incinerated coal sources that have not yet been tested for in the Chinese drywall. These include Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), and radioisotopes such as Radium 226, which are known to occur in coal mine waste and coal fly ash.

"The bleaching process, as well as uncontrolled incineration of coal sources, can generate chlorinated compounds, such as dioxins or chlorinated PAHs. These chemicals have not yet been fully investigated," said Williams.

In November 2006, a team from the Arkansas-based Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH), conducted its own analysis of air samples taken from homes in Florida where Knauf Tianjin gypsum plasterboard had been used to see if "the measured compounds posed an unacceptable public health risk".

"The testing revealed that the Knauf Tianjin product released low levels of certain naturally-occurring sulfur-containing compounds. Testing of the bulk material revealed the likely source of these compounds was a sulfur-containing mineral known as iron disulfide. One of the other two products manufactured in China presented a similar odor and also contained the iron disulfide mineral," reported the CTEH team.

However, the team concluded that, "measured concentrations of the detected chemicals in air were not present at levels that present a public health concern". This finding came despite the fact that, "certain naturally-occurring sulfur-containing compounds can be emitted from the Knauf Tianjin product at concentrations higher than present in background air".

The looming legal battle is likely to be a protracted and hotly contested showdown. Attempts by Asia Times Online to reach both German and Chinese company were unsuccessful.

According to Jack Landskroner, a managing partner of the Cleveland law firm Landskroner Grieco Madden, which is representing one of the plaintiffs, nobody has any idea as to the actual number of homes that might be affected, let alone how much money is involved.

"We know that some of the builders are estimating that a minimum remediation effort will cost at least $75,000 per home with an approximate square footage of 2,000. The cost will go up from there based on square footage and the adequacy of the remediation being suggested," said Landskroner.

Some observers see this base estimate as extremely conservative, and do not rule out the possibility that a figure twice as big may emerge over time. This possibility cannot be dismissed entirely given the fact that this estimate simply includes materials, fittings and certain items in the home. It does not include health care costs and other expenses incurred by the people living in the homes.

Although all the class action lawsuits have now been consolidated for the purposes of preliminary management in front of one judge in the Eastern District of Louisiana, it is too early to discuss any timetable or schedule as this case was just assigned to the judge in New Orleans.

"He will likely be holding a hearing in the next few weeks to discuss with the lawyers how the case will proceed," said Landskroner.

Scheduling aside, Landskroner contends that "the claims of our clients are meritorious and that we will obtain a fair and adequate recovery on their behalf by way of an agreed to settlement with the defendants or by way of judgment should the builders and manufacturers choose not to adequately address their culpability to these homeowners. Our clients paid premium prices to purchase their dream homes and instead they are now suffering the effects of bargain basement materials used by the builders which continue to [affect] their property and may also have long term effect on their health."

One resident of Fort Myers, Florida, described the Chinese drywall affair as "huge", but went on to add that while many builders and small businesses in the US would end up in very bad shape - if not out of business entirely - as a result of this situation, "the big guys" overseas named in the lawsuits would likely emerge without a scratch. Others wonder how US homeowners might be compensated for all the damages they may have suffered as a result. Can the foreign companies in question be compelled to mail checks to US homeowners? Many think not.

"The Chinese company involved in this matter as well as the German company have both been named as defendants in our lawsuits. We are in the process of having them served with copies of the lawsuits and expect that they will be party to this litigation," said Landskroner.

One Republican Louisiana state senator said what is unfolding here is tantamount to Chinese companies dumping "toxic waste" between two sheets of paper and exporting it to the US as drywall. Still, an effort during the latest session of the Louisiana state legislature to provide some form of relief to the state's affected homeowners went nowhere.

The consolidation of the lawsuits and the mounting pressure from the US Congress on the CPSC will no doubt bring additional publicity. Yet there are no assurances that demonstrations of concern and greater media scrutiny will bring any relief to thousands of irate US homeowners.

Notes: 1.) Drywall has China defensive, April 25, 2009

Peter J Brown is a freelance writer from the US state of Maine and a frequent contributor to Asia Times Online.