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Tainted drywall causes big problems for Florida homeowners

FOR SALE: Southwest Florida home! Electrical wiring and air conditioning replaced every six months! House rarely used as residents spend little time inside! Pleasant sulfur smell! Make an offer! Motivated seller!

Something stinks in a growing number of homes built during the peak of the housing boom just south of the Tampa Bay area.

Some builders, unable to find (or unwilling to buy) higher-priced domestic drywall around 2005-2006, went shopping in China. What they got was drywall, now in hundreds and possibly thousands of Florida homes, that can exude a sulfurlike gas. Some residents appear sensitive to the smell, while others do not. Only a few folks are ringing alarm bells on health matters.

But this much is known: The sulfurlike odor corrodes metal and repeatedly has eaten away the electrical wiring, air conditioning systems and, in some cases, plumbing pipes, inside the walls of affected Florida homes. Some homes have had their wiring and air conditioning replaced more than once. But the corrosion returns.

Some homes are back on the market. They're not hot sellers.

The Florida Department of Health has received more than three dozen complaints from homeowners around the state, mostly in Manatee, Sarasota and Lee counties, but also in Pinellas, St. Lucie and Collier. One east Manatee development called Heritage Harbour has 23 homes documented with imported drywall.

The stink over the stink raises several concerns. First, at this point we do not know if this is little more than an unfortunate case of overzealous builders installing a cheap Chinese drywall product that will need to be replaced. Second, some affected residents, alarmed by health concerns and scared their housing values just landed in the Dumpster, are organizing to find legal and possibly even legislative relief. Third, given the lousy track record of tainted products imported from China, we are again reminded that globalization may make for cheap products but offers little oversight of quality control or health risks.

Miami-based home builder Lennar Corp. discovered it had a drywall problem by tracking home repair requests. Since then it has relocated some home buyers and replaced drywall in some homes. It also hired Tampa-based environmental consulting firm Environ to test at least 79 homes. Environ confirmed that "certain gypsum wallboard manufactured in China" was emitting reduced sulfur gases capable of affecting copper HVAC coils. It did not find any gases considered a health concern.

One manufacturer affected from the publicity is Knauf Plasterboard, Tianjin Co., a China affiliate of a German construction materials company. Its drywall imports spiked in 2006 at the height of the building boom and soon after hurricanes Katrina and Wilma drove up drywall demand.

Florida lawyer Donna Berger runs a nonprofit organization for more than 1,000 community associations called Community Advocacy Network. She's received numerous complaints about tainted drywall.

"We think this is going to be a big problem," she told the Bradenton Herald. "We think it will probably be addressed legislatively at some point."

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Tainted drywall causes big problems for Florida homeowners 01/31/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 2, 2009 11:11am]
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