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Robert Trigaux

As Chinese drywall horrors and costs mount, Washington waffles



CPSCchairineztenenbaum Wake up and good morning. After so many months of mounting evidence, families effectively banned from their homes for health reasons, homes so tainted that they can't be resold, litigation, federal and state investigations and general  outcry... you'd think we'd finally be making some progress on fixing the problems caused by the use by builders of sulfur-spewing, corrosion-inducing Chinese drywall in thousands of homes built in or around 2005-2006 in Florida and other states.

Then comes our startlingly wishy-washy federal product-safety regulators, apparently led by Chief Waffler and Consumer Product Safety Commission chair Inez Tenenbaum (see photo). While saying Thursday that their sampling of Chinese drywall emits higher concentrations of sulfur gases and strontium than U.S.-made product, the regulators found no evidence so far that the emissions were to blame for health problems and metal corrosion reported by at least 1,900 U.S. homeowners. Here's the complete Wall Street Journal/Dow Jones story.

An abundance of scientific caution? Just an unfortunate coincidence? Or perhaps a weak-spined federal accommodation to China? You decide.

There's some serious liability lurking here. Consulting firm Towers Perrin estimates that the tab for drywall damage could range from $15 billion to $25 billion, and housing experts have estimated it costs about $100,000 per average-sized home to pull out bad drywall and replace corroded electrical wiring and appliances. No wonder housing developments in Florida (see AP photo of sign) are going out of their way to advertise "No Chinese Drywall Here."

ChinesedrywallnochinesedrywallsignAP As the Dow Jones story  notes, the Consumer Product Safety Commission's "inconclusive preliminary report promises to continue the uncertainty over who will pay for damage claimed by homeowners in 30 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico—China, the home builders, distributors, insurers or the U.S. government." Federal studies on the health and corrosive effects of the drywall are continuing. The story adds:

"Before CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum visited China earlier this month for a U.S.-China summit on consumer product safety, she said she planned to ask Chinese officials whether they were prepared to help pay for any drywall damages. But the agency has since sidestepped answering whether Ms. Tenenbaum discussed the cost issue with Chinese officials. A CPSC spokesman said only that Ms. Tenenbaum, in private and public meetings with senior Chinese officials, stated her expectation that Chinese companies 'should do what is just and fair' and accept responsibility if any of their products are at fault.

"A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy said he wasn't aware of any agreement between the U.S. and China on payment for any damages."

Senbillnelson Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida— the state that has seen the majority of homeowner complaints — told Dow Jones that the CPSC results "defy common sense," and added that he is frustrated by "the slowness of the testing." Nelson (in photo) sent a letter to President Barack Obama Thursday asking him to raise the issue of contaminated drywall when he meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao next month in Asia.

Why do I have a growing suspicion this 5K of fingerpointing is about to become a bureaucratic marathon?

Here's the inside joke. President Obama replaced acting CPSC chairwoman Nancy Nord last spring after Sen. Nelson accused her agency of doing too little, too late to prevent tainted imports of Chinese drywall from causing health problems for homeowners in Florida and other states.

Whew. Glad we got that fixed.

In the meantime, feast on this NPR story headlined Toxic Chinese Drywall Creates A Housing Disaster or this AP story headlined Insurers Dropping Chinese Drywall Policies.

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:26am]


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