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Hillsborough County couple say drywall has sickened them; USG Corp., its American maker, disputes that

Estevan Flores removes drywall from the Mrazes’ home. Flores and others at Falcon Towing volunteered time, using set guidelines.
Published Apr. 12, 2012

BALM

Joseph and Julie Mraz celebrated their 30th Valentine's Day together tearing out the walls of the small home they built five years ago, hoping to finish out their lives there in peace and comfort. It was a desperate measure for the disabled couple, who say vapors from tainted drywall sickened them to the point of hospitalization. Two years of renting an apartment sapped their savings, while their appeals for help have gone largely unheeded. Now they live in tents outside their dream home-turned-nightmare while attempting to make it livable.

"This is my house, and unless I drop dead in the middle of the night, I'm going to stay," vowed Joseph Mraz, 54, who walks with a cane and often relies on a wheelchair to get around.

"I'm putting a mask on . . . and pulling it out piece by piece," he said, walking through the house where some walls are stripped to the wood framework. "I'm going against all my doctors' orders. But what am I supposed to do? I have no money to hire anybody."

It might be a replay of the story told by thousands of other homeowners driven from their abodes by smelly, corrosive drywall, but the Mrazes say their tale has a twist: The drywall did not come from China.

It was made in America.

• • •

The drywall manufacturer says there is nothing wrong with its product.

The couple's homeowners' insurance company disagrees, and declined to pay their claim, citing "reactive wallboard" as a defective product excluded from coverage.

And now, Hillsborough's Solid Waste Department has refused to accept the wallboard the Mrazes tore out and bagged up for disposal, saying the gases it emanates could damage piping and other metal equipment at the Southeast County Landfill.

The Mrazes say they have endured more than two years of finger-pointing and excuses that left them literally holding the bags of bad drywall on a concrete slab under the eaves of the house for three months. Last week, at the request of county officials, a private company agreed to haul away and dispose of the contaminated material at no charge.

That's a step in the right direction, say the Mrazes, but they still need help with medical bills and restoring their home.

Julie Mraz, 49, wryly recalls the 2010 remark of a federal investigator who left the house in a hurry, his eyes watering.

"His quote to me was, 'It's a good thing you don't have Chinese (drywall) because at least you have a chance of getting reimbursed.' "

Since then, the Mrazes have spent countless hours telling officials that all bad wallboard isn't from China. Based on the barcode, they have traced their drywall to a USG Corp. plant in Jacksonville.

Bob Williams, spokesman for Chicago-based maker of gypsum wallboard and other construction materials, said last month that a company representative visited the Mraz home and found no problems with the wallboard. The Mrazes said the company took drywall samples from their home but never provided them with test results.

Williams did not respond to a request for the test results, and declined to say if USG has received other complaints about its drywall. Three others did log complaints on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission website, saferproducts.gov.

Among them is North Port's Charles Hummer, a disabled veteran who says he and his wife moved out of their home after months of respiratory illness. He blames USG wallboard.

Julie Mraz said the product that was banned from the county landfill has a USG barcode. County officials said they turned the drywall away based on the results of testing by an engineering company when the Mrazes filed an insurance claim.

Williams noted a different inspection concluded the Mraz home did not show characteristics of those affected by Chinese drywall. That report, furnished by the Mrazes, was based on a visual inspection; no samples were tested.

The USG spokesman said naturally occurring hydrogen sulfide in well water in southeastern Hillsborough could account for the accelerated corrosion of fixtures.

However, Julie Mraz noted that her neighbors tap the same water source and report no similar problems. A test of her water last year by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection turned up no unusual characteristics.

• • •

Julie and Joseph Mraz say they sank most of their life's savings into the four-bedroom home. The house's counters, cabinets and pathways were designed to accommodate Joseph's wheelchair. The couple lives on Joseph's monthly $1,500 disability payment after an on-the-job injury 12 years ago.

Julie Mraz has lupus and says she does not qualify for any disability programs.

The couple moved into their home in early 2007. About four months later, Julie Mraz noticed the silver plating on a lamp in the bathroom had dark spots of corrosion. A few months later, metal objects in the kitchen began showing the same signs of early corrosion, and appliances stopped working or started making unusual noises.

The Mrazes said the air conditioner kept malfunctioning. Finally, after several visits, a technician pulled away a panel to reveal blackened coils and diagnosed bad drywall.

Meanwhile, about a year after moving in, the Mrazes said they began having bloody noses and skin rashes. Julie Mraz said she woke up one day unable to swallow and paralyzed on one side. Her husband was coughing and struggling to breathe. Both said they spent extended stays in the hospital, and in April 2010, a doctor advised them to move out.

In 2010 and '11, the couple lived in an apartment and their health improved. But they ran out of money in January and moved back to their homestead, this time living in tents outside the house and only darting inside to use the bathroom and kitchen for brief periods.

• • •

Alex Filip, a spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has investigated American complaints about Chinese and domestic drywall, said about 190 of the more than 3,900 complaints about drywall involve domestic brands.

CPSC records indicate 56 percent of all drywall complaints come from Florida.

Filip said the commission has been unable to pinpoint what has caused the problem drywall. Generally, domestic drywall samples tested showed much lower levels of sulfur gases thought to be creating homeowner woes than problem wallboard imported from China between 2002 and 2008.

Filip said CPSC's mission ended when it developed a protocol for consumers to correct homes with problem drywall — at their own expense. Megan Miller, a Hillsborough County Solid Waste Department engineer, said most local homeowners pay private contractors to dispose of contaminated wallboard at specially designed landfills.

Jeffrey Lieser, a Tampa lawyer who began representing the Mrazes last month, said he has talked to eight Florida homeowners who say they have bad American-made drywall. The Mrazes are the only clients he has in Hillsborough.

"This was supposed to be our place to live out our days," Julie Mraz said. "This was not supposed to happen. . . . I want my house back more than anything."

Susan Marschalk Green can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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