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Chinese drywall scanner holds promise, remains unregulated

Your house smells like a rotten egg. Your copper wiring has turned black. And your kids suffer persistent coughs, bloody and runny noses, and headaches.

You suspect contaminated Chinese drywall, but don't have the $2,700 lab testing fees to find out whether there's a problem.

A possible, less expensive testing solution may be on the horizon. New businesses are offering a noninvasive scan of homes throughout Tampa Bay and across the state for $500, using a handheld tool that can help identify the corrosive gases emitted by Chinese drywall.

But with the testing method comes big warnings: The service is not licensed by the state, does not require certification and has no oversight.

"You need to be really sure of the qualifications of the person doing the testing," said David Krause, a state toxicologist reviewing the drywall issue.

"We consider this to be a very promising screening method," Krause said. "But the state does not endorse this as a testing method yet. There currently is not a standard on approach or standard in how to do this."

Rodney Fischer, executive director of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, said a Miami-Dade County official told him the best method so far is taking a piece of the drywall out and reading the label.

"If it says, 'Made in China,' then there you go."

So with the issue still developing, conditions are ripe for consumers to get taken.

As of September, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission received 1,174 reports in 24 states including Florida of health symptoms or problems with corrosion related to Chinese drywall.

Local, state and federal authorities say the drywall problem is substantial and led to a conference in Tampa last week, where some discussion of the scan test took place.

Albert Freeland of Navarre is among those who offer the $500 XRF scanner testing. The XRF can search for traces of the metal strontium — part of the corrosive, gas emitting compound strontium sulfide that is seen as part of the problem with Chinese drywall.

Freeland says he has received calls to perform hundreds of tests across the state, among them requests to scan 90 homes in St. Petersburg and another dozen in Tampa.

Freeland says his background is in the construction business, which gives him his expertise. But it also is in the construction business that he found troubles. He says a partner wrote business checks that bounced and left.

Freeland pleaded guilty and no contest to several counts of fraud for insufficient funds checks in the 1990s. He also pleaded no contest to a charge of contracting without a license.

His son, Albert Freeland Jr., who is in the business with him, has liens for failing to pay federal taxes.

"He's paying the money back," the elder Freeland said. "He makes payments monthly."

Freeland says his current partner for Drywall Detectors LLC bought the $42,000 scanner but wasn't using it. So he began using the scanner to scan drywall.

He says the scan does not definitively determine that the drywall is contaminated, but the data is "an indicator" and he says "our method is about 99.9 percent."

Because of the lack of oversight of those performing the service and the questions about the true effectiveness of the method, Krause suggests consumers take a wait-and-see approach to the scanner.

So here's the Edge:

• Don't rush to get your house scanned without thoroughly vetting the company. It's difficult enough ensuring the contractor you picked to remodel your house is safe and qualified with all of the local and state regulations. With no oversight, consumers are vulnerable.

• Contact your local or state health department. If you suspect your home might contain Chinese drywall, health departments are following the issue and can assist you.

• For more information on health issues related to Chinese drywall, visit the federal Chinese Drywall Information Center at: www.cpsc.gov/info/drywall/index.html.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and become a fan of Consumers Edge on Facebook.

Chinese drywall scanner holds promise, remains unregulated 11/13/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 16, 2009 5:07pm]
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