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Chinese drywall poses threat, but danger, prevalence believed to be low

Why are people complaining?

Some low-quality Chinese drywall lets off sulfur-smelling fumes that seem to corrode copper wiring in sockets, air conditioners and other appliances. Some homes, including one in Tarpon Springs, have had the air conditioners replaced three times in a year. Other homeowners have complained about coughs and sore throats from breathing the fumes, which seem to get worse when the drywall is wet.

Why did we need to import drywall, and how much of it came to Florida?

With drywall in short supply during the building boom and Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, suppliers turned increasingly to China to fill the gap. An Associated Press investigation of shipping records put the amount imported from China at about 500 million pounds, much of it entering the United States in 2006. It's possible that Chinese drywall was installed in anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 homes.

Is every bit of the imported drywall tainted?

That's unknown. While tens of thousands of homes across the country potentially contain Chinese drywall, Florida's Department of Health has received complaints from fewer than 400 homeowners. And some of the complaints have been unfounded. Sulfur is a naturally occurring element in gypsum, the main ingredient of drywall.

How widespread is it in the Tampa Bay area?

The state health department has received 19 complaints from our four-county region. Most complaints came from South Florida.

Which builders used it?

According to plaintiffs' attorneys, builders that used the stuff include Lennar, Taylor Morrison, WCI, Transeastern, Ryland and Standard Pacific.

What's the legal status of Chinese drywall complaints?

Dozens of homeowners have sued builders for installing what they claim was tainted drywall in their homes. Builders, including Florida-based Lennar, have sued manufacturers and suppliers of drywall for supplying them with subpar building material.

What have laboratory tests found in the Chinese drywall?

A 66-page Florida Department of Health analysis last winter concluded that samples of Chinese drywall contained higher levels of sulfur and organic compounds. State toxicologist and chief investigator David Krause said that while drywall can be corrosive, it poses no immediate health threat to people. Lab work performed by the Environmental Protection Agency showed Chinese samples contained sulfur, two compounds found in acrylic paints and levels of strontium 10 times higher than in an American sample.

Strontium? That sounds dangerous.

Not necessarily. Strontium is used in radioactive form to treat cancer and other ailments, but it's commonly found in China as a naturally occurring mineral called strontium carbonate, used in fireworks and as a clarifying agent in sugar refining. In announcing the strontium findings, the EPA reached no conclusions about health hazards.

Politicians predict calamities from Chinese drywall. In March, U.S. Rep Robert Wexler of Broward County called it a "significant statewide problem … similar to natural disasters such as a hurricane, fire, or flood." Should we panic?

Hurricane Katrina killed thousands and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage. Chinese drywall is nowhere near that problem. No one has died. And, so far, builders themselves have covered most of the replacement costs for the drywall.

— James Thorner, Times staff writer Information from Times wires was included in this report.

Chinese drywall poses threat, but danger, prevalence believed to be low 05/21/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 21, 2009 8:55pm]
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