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Florida builders brace for suits over odor-emitting Chinese drywall

Tarpon Springs resident Andrew Scott couldn't figure out why he had to replace his air conditioner three times in one year.

Little did he know the problem originated on the other side of the globe.

His builder, Lennar, confirmed that tainted Chinese-made drywall in Scott's and four adjacent townhomes on Hillview Lane emitted sulfuric fumes that corroded the unit's coils and raised an occasional stink.

"We would notice odors in the upstairs bathroom," Scott said. "The humidity brings out the sulphur in the walls."

Chinese drywall has become the home construction scare story of the season.

USA Today highlighted the problem in a long story this week. At least three class-action lawsuits in Florida have rattled builders and drywall suppliers. Plaintiffs allege the drywall fumes destroy appliances and copper wiring, and cause headaches and coughs.

No one knows the number of Florida homes built with defective Asian wallboard. It was imported by the millions of pounds between 2004 and 2006 when American companies couldn't keep up with the building boom and post-hurricane reconstruction. Estimates vary between 800 and 36,000 homes.

Close to 100 homeowners — about 10 in the Tampa Bay area — have reported the problem to the Florida Department of Health. In a report released late Friday, the health department confirmed Chinese drywall samples put off a strong sulphur smell when exposed to heat. An American-made sample did not.

The tests also showed that Chinese drywall had an organic content of more than 5 percent. That could lend credence to a theory, propagated by personal injury law firm Morgan & Morgan, that Chinese manufacturers tainted drywall with waste ash from coal-fired power plants.

"This is potentially a widespread problem," said Luis Prats, an attorney defending builders and contractors against drywall suits at the Tampa office of the Carlton Fields law firm. "We're getting ready for the onslaught."

No test so far has revealed fumes concentrated enough to endanger a person's health, said toxicologist David Krause, the state's principal investigator.

Much of the investigation has focused on Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin, a German-owned company with plants in China. The company said the sulphur in its drywall came from a Chinese mine that contained too much iron disulfide, a naturally occurring mineral. Knauf says it has since switched to another mine.

"The company will not be a scapegoat for home builders who would seek a quick and convenient bailout based on false claims," Knauf has said.

Builders known to have installed the drywall include Lennar, Taylor Morrison, WCI, Trans­eastern, Ryland and Standard Pacific, plaintiffs attorneys said.

In January, Lennar itself sued suppliers and manufacturers for providing it with defective Chinese drywall. Lennar, the nation's second-largest builder, has identified 80 to 120 Florida homes with the bad drywall, including Scott's.

Lennar has done well by Scott. At no charge, the company will strip out the low-quality drywall and replace it.

"They're putting us up, all expenses paid, for three to five months while it's fixed," Scott said. "I'm very happy for the service Lennar has provided."

Florida builders brace for suits over odor-emitting Chinese drywall 03/20/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 20, 2009 10:54pm]
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