Is your drywall making you sick?

A local worker making drywall in Huzhu County of Qunghai Province, China. See more home construction pictures.
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If you have a home that was built after World War II, then the walls are likely made from sheets of drywall. Prior to this era, homes typically had plaster walls. Drywall is made of sheets of gypsum plaster pressed together between thick sheets of paper. It's also known as gypsum board, panel board and Sheetrock, which is a common brand name. Gypsum is a naturally occurring mineral that turns out to be the perfect ingredient for making drywall.

The United States saw unprecedented growth in the real estate market between 2001 and 2005. Builders were busy, real estate agents were hopping and homeowners saw their houses make significant gains in value. In 2005, income levels for builders hit a national high of nearly $768 billion [source: NAHB]. It should come as no surprise then that building materials like drywall were in shorter supply than normal. The United States manufactures about 15 million tons of drywall each year, but that still wasn't enough. So builders turned to imported drywall from other countries, notably China. Between 2004 and 2008, the United States has imported about 550 million pounds of Chinese drywall [source: TIME].

The good news about the imported Chinese drywall was that it was abundant and inexpensive. A single sheet runs anywhere from eight to 15 cents cheaper than its American counterpart. So for builders, that savings is multiplied by however many houses are on the books, which yields quite a savings when you add it all up. The downside of using the imported drywall is that it's having some serious effects. People began noticing some odd things in their new homes -- strange smells, failing appliances and health problems. For a while, nobody could pinpoint the cause of these abnormalities, but it was soon traced back to the imported drywall.

In the next section, we'll take a look at why Chinese drywall is so problematic.

The Problem with Chinese drywall

In August of 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was officially notified of the problem. After some investigation, the bulk of the tainted drywall was traced by to a manufacturer called Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co. Ltd. Initially, the company refused to take any blame and said that the toxic drywall came from another, unnamed company. But as the problem grew and testing began, the company acknowledged that it had shipped some of the bad drywall, but blamed a single gypsum mine in Tianjin, China, that's no longer being used. The drywall in question has been found to have significant levels of several chemicals believed to be responsible for the ill effects, including:

  • Iron disulfide
  • Hydrogen sulfide
  • Sulfuric acid
  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Carbon disulfide

As of May 2009, testing was still underway on drywall sheets all over the United States, but mainly in Florida, Louisiana and a few other coastal states. However, the problem could be more widespread than initially thought, with recent statistics placing the toxic gypsum board in up to 100,000 homes in 41 states [source: PR Newswire]. One reason the coastal states, especially Florida, have been impacted the most is because it's believed that heat and humidity have exacerbated the vapors being emitted into the air.

Researchers aren't sure exactly what's caused the problem, but chemical fumigants used on the materials in the drywall may be the culprit. Another factor could be the use of a byproduct called fly ash that's less refined in China than it is in the United States. Fly ash has nothing to do with the buzzing pests -- it's a residue of coal combustion that's more typically used as an ingredient in concrete mixtures. In the United States, a process of scrubbing a coal mine's smokestack emissions creates the calcium sulfate, or gypsum, that's used to make drywall. Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin used fly ash before it ever reached the smokestack, making it less refined and highly suspect [source: Associated Press].

How to Tell if You Have Toxic Drywall

There are some telltale signs that your home's walls may be tainted from toxic Chinese drywall. The first giveaway is the smell of sulfur, often likened to rotten eggs. Some homeowners began to notice that their home air-conditioning systems were failing early and often. This is due to corrosion on copper wiring caused by the drywall. If you've noticed that your HVAC system has failed and the copper wires are now coated in black residue, you might have problems. Other appliances have been affected as well. If your stove and oven heating elements and refrigerator coils have been failing, it's likely due to the bad drywall. These issues are only red flags if your home was built or remodeled between 2005 and 2008, and mainly in the coastal southern United States, although smaller numbers of houses are suspected to be affected in up to 41 states.

Some other warning signs in your home include:

These are just warning signs directly related to the structure of your home. There are also health effects to look out for. If you're living in a high-risk house and you've noticed respiratory issues, nose bleeds, rashes, headaches, coughing and sinus problems, you could be suffering from issues tied to toxic drywall. No formal health studies have been conducted as of May 2009, and the Knauf company has denied that the off-gassing from their drywall is any real cause of health concern. But if the drywall is tarnishing silver and corroding copper wiring, it can't be a coincidence that these same homeowners have suffering health.

There have been no confirmed deaths from families living in homes with the bad drywall, but Florida House Representative Wexler has received information about children that have required hospital stays and surgery due to respiratory complications believed to have resulted from the tainted gypsum. Some families have had to move out of their homes, and builders have already begun stripping houses down to the frame and replacing the drywall, which is the only solution. Some fear that even that won't completely rid the homes of the sulfur smell, which is thought to be seeping into the wood itself.

If you suspect that your home has toxic drywall, you can call the Homeowners Consumer Center at 866-714-6466 or contact them at their Web site -- http://homeownersconsumercenter.com.

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Sources

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