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Senate Subcommittee Grills CPSC on Drywall

Lawmakers questioned CPSC and CDC officials about the progress of a years-long federal investigation into contaminated drywall at a Senate hearing.

Witnesses testify during a U.S. Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing (right to left): Brenda Brincku, Florida homeowner and drywall victims advocate; William Shelton, Viriginia Department of Housing and Community Development Director; Dr. Christopher Portier, CDC National Center for Environmental Health Director; Neal Cohen, CPSC Small Business Ombudsman (Photo by Joaquin Sapien/ProPublica)

At a hearing in Washington yesterday, lawmakers pressed product safety and health regulators about their three-year investigation into contaminated drywall, expressing frustration with their progress on all fronts.

Defective drywall, most of it imported from China, releases sulfur gas that can corrode electric wiring and trigger respiratory irritation. An investigation published last year by ProPublica and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune showed there are nearly 7,000 homes built with bad drywall nationwide, but enough material was imported to build at least 100,000 homes.

Witnesses at yesterday’s Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing addressed several questions raised by our coverage, including the still-unknown health effects of sulfur gas exposure, the conflicting government guidelines on how to fix homes built with defective material, the challenges of holding Chinese companies accountable, and whether American-made drywall could also be problematic.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., whose state has at least 400 homes affected by bad board, called the drywall problem one of the most frustrating he’s dealt with in more than 20 years in politics.

Brenda Brincku, a Florida homeowner who has sought relief for problems caused by drywall since 2004, said in written testimony that “the federal agencies working on this problem for over four years have failed us.”

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is leading the federal investigation into drywall. Neal Cohen, the commission’s small business ombudsman, defended the agency’s efforts, but acknowledged that progress has been stunted by a lack of cooperation from Chinese government-owned companies.

The subcommitee’s primary concern was the potential health effects of defective drywall. The Centers for Disease Control and the CPSC maintain that levels of sulfur compounds inside affected homes aren’t high enough to cause long-term health problems, but panel members said they found that hard to believe. Exposure to the sulfur gasses for even short periods can cause coughing, severe headaches and bloody noses. Warner said he had visited a home built with defective board staying just 45 minutes, and felt sick for the rest of the day.

The hearing’s most contentious moment came when Warner asked the Centers for Disease Control representative, Dr. Christopher Portier, “Would you allow your family to live in one of these homes?”

Portier paused before answering, “Probably not.”

Portier said the CDC is working to create a model of indoor air levels of sulfur gas emitted by defective drywall that would allow it to calculate health risks. Results from the study are expected in spring 2012.

Homeowners saddled with bad drywall have long complained that regulators keep changing the instructions for how to fix it. The CPSC first advised homeowners that all electrical wiring should be removed because of fire safety concerns then reversed its position, saying the wiring didn’t necessarily need to be taken out.

Cohen said that all of the CPSC’s decisions were supported by “a high caliber of science.” Still, the commission’s guidelines conflict with those issued last year by U.S. District Court Judge Eldon E. Fallon, who is presiding over drywall litigation in federal court in New Orleans, as well as those issued by Virginia’s housing department.

The Virginia guidelines say that wiring should be left in place, but corroded and exposed surfaces should be cleaned. Virginia housing department director William Shelton, who testified at the hearing, said that it would cost $35 to $50 per square foot to fix a home using this method.

The majority of homeowners interviewed by ProPublica and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune said they couldn’t afford to fix their homes. They’ve sought assistance from state and federal programs, but those options are limited because of the current fiscal environment. As a result, some homeowners with defective drywall have defaulted on their mortgages, gone into debt and endured blows to their credit.

Subcommittee members discussed pressing insurers to pay for drywall damage and asking credit-rating agencies not to penalize people affected by such problems. Freddie Mac is offering loan forbearance to affected homeowners.

Unlike most homeowners who have complained about corrosion and health problems from drywall, Brincku lives in a home built with board made in America, not China.

But as ProPublica and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported last year, Brincku has experienced the same problems as homeowners who had defective Chinese material.

National Gypsum, which produced the drywall in the Brincku home, contends that nothing is wrong with their material.

The CPSC studied 11 homes that homeowners said were built with American drywall, determining that five exhibited problems and levels of sulfur compounds similar to those built with Chinese drywall. But since the agency did not check for origin labels on the drywall samples, its findings were inconclusive. The CPSC has said that such labels often don’t exist anyway.

Pressed by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Cohen said the CPSC had received more than 70 complaints about domestic drywall, but said it would be impossible to confirm the origins of the board “without ripping out every piece of drywall from a home.”

The subcommittee was eager to learn about the CPSC’s latest correspondence with the Chinese government, which owns many of the companies that produced the defective drywall.

Two years ago, a delegation of CPSC inspectors visited drywall factories and gypsum mines in China. The visit became so tense that an American inspector got into a physical tug-of-war with a Chinese official over a drywall sample.

Relations don’t seem to have improved much since then.

“To date there has been no response from the Chinese manufacturers,” Cohen said at yesterday’s hearing. “They are basically telling us, ‘return to sender’ and that they don’t believe there is a problem with their drywall.”

The CPSC is urging homeowners to seek relief in the courts. Plaintiff’s attorneys are currently trying to get the Chinese to cooperate in legal proceedings taking place in New Orleans federal court.

Several committee members cited the need to pass the Foreign Manufacturers Legal Accountability Act, which would require overseas manufacturers to register an agent in the U.S., to make it easier for U.S. attorneys to file civil and regulatory claims against foreign companies..

“This is a textbook case for why it’s critical that we should be able to reach these Chinese companies,” said Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who chaired the subcommittee hearing. “One of the basic starting points on this is that Chinese manufacturers should have to register, just like domestic corporations, and European corporations, for service and process.”

I completely agree with Senator Pryor that Chinese manufacturers should have to register a U.S. agent.  It’s not just drywall that’s an issue.  I recently had laminate flooring installed in my home (made by a Chinese company) that is now off-gassing levels of formaldehyde 12-times in excess of EPA “safe” levels.  The EPA was of no help—telling me to contact the CPSC.  The CPSC told me there was nothing they could do, that it was up to “the individual residential consumer” to handle the situation.  The CPSC agent did say that if I tested the product myself (at my expense), contacted the manufacturer (good luck if it’s in China), and sent all of the information to them, they MIGHT be able to start a recall.

When I asked the CPSC why such Chinese products were allowed into the country if those products did not adhere to US safety standards, he just gave the old saw of limited resources, adding, “A lot of unsafe stuff gets in from China and other Asian countries.  It’s pretty much buyer beware.”

Granted, I have to take some responsibility for my situation;  I allowed my contractor to pick out and purchase the laminate—never knowing there was a concern about formaldehyde off-gassing.  Had I known there were such issues, I would have done much more research before buying.

Lesson learned:  Avoid buying ANYTHING made in China.  (True, it’s difficult to do, but if there are American or even European options, but those.)  My family members, friends and I boycott Chinese products now.  From lead-laden toys, to sulfer-emitting drywall to formaldehyde off-gassing laminate floors, it’s clear the Chinese manufacturers cannot be trusted.

Chinese Drywall

Dec. 7, 2011, 1:54 p.m.

To learn more about what this toxic import has done to American families, read their stories at: http://www.victimschinesedrywall.com/FamilyStories.aspx.
Here you will find numerous family stories that were sent, back in early October of 2011, to President Obama, Senators, Congressman and numerous media outlets.
While I am thankful that this hearing was held by the Senate subcommittee it is difficult, after 2.5 years of gross mishandling of this disaster,  to hold on to any hope for a resolution as we all watch our financial well being become decimated because of this toxic product that was allowed into our country.

Andy Mechling

Dec. 7, 2011, 3:32 p.m.

Thanks Pro Publica

CPSC needs to get with CDC and EPA, and formulate a plan.

We simply need to know what wallboard is made out of.

If drywall is now comprised of sythetic gypsum;

and if synthetic gypsum contains toxic waste in the form of fly-ash from coal-fired power plants.

The situation is untenable. 

Carbon disulfide, carbonyl sulfide, and hydrogen sulfide are all dangerous neuropoisons.  These don’t belong in our children’s bedrooms.

At all.

Thank you again

Chinese Drywall

Dec. 7, 2011, 3:35 p.m.

Amanda,
You can go to the CPSC public database website to report your problem with your laminate flooring. https://www.saferproducts.gov/CPSRMSPublic/Incidents/ReportIncident.aspx

CPSC is suppose to send a copy of the report to the manufacturer (including importers) and give them the opportunity to comment.  Please go here and report your toxic product even if it is just in the hopes that someone else will see your report and not be harmed by this toxic import!  There may already be another report out there on this product too!
I would love to talk with you some more.  If you want, please contact me via my website listed above.
We also try very hard to no longer purchase Made in China!  Electronics are almost impossible and necessary for school work in today’s day and age but everything else we search for it Made in the USA or any other country then China.  If it is not available… we don’t need it!

Andy I could not agree more.  One of the topics we were not able to raise at this hearing was about drywall recycling.  We did bring this up after the hearing.  Drywall that is left over from the construction of homes can be sent off to a recycling plant and recycled into NEW drywall.  What is being done with the drywall that is coming out of these “remediated” homes.  Has anyone said that this drywall is to go to the dump and not to the recycling plants?  The answer is NO!  Does it need to go into a special landfill?  No one has answered that either.

We need to figure out how this happened to drywall.  What changed in the manufacturing process in the years that this problem began?  Was it FGD, was it tainted gypsum from the mine in China?  We also need to say this drywall cannot be recycled into NEW drywall.

Henry Sampson

Dec. 7, 2011, 3:56 p.m.

Wow, Senators actually getting involved in the CD issue which has been going on since 2006. Must be an election year for them.

Brenda Brincku

Dec. 7, 2011, 6:34 p.m.

National Gypsum has tried to blame all the stuff that happen in my home on my well water. If that was the case every home in Florida is contaminatd. I have sulfur reducing bateria in my drywall & the only way it got there was through the manufacturing process. CPSC admits that my well water is fine & no one in my neighborhood has the problem.

Thank you Colleen, Brenda, Rich and all the people who testified on behalf of all the CDW victims. Thank you Andy for your comment about laminated flooring made in China is also emitting formaldehyde that is new news to us.
For those who looking for electronics not made in China, please look for items that were not manufactured between 2001 and 2010. Most of the stores are not buying electronics made in China as much as they used to do. If a store is offering huge discount and warranty on a product it is very likely that the product is made in China, it is defective so they are trying to get rid off it. Please do not be fooled by the label on the electronic display item which may say made in Japan however, once you get the product, the label will say made in China so beware of any purchase you do, please check the label on the box and on the product and please do not buy anything made in China, we could get just about everything NOT made in China. We do not purchase anything made in China since we learned that the garlic is made in the Chinese sewerage and later on bleached, and the seafood, which has been farmed in the Chinese sewerage treated with ANTIBIOTICS. If we 10,000 + families try not to purchase anything made in China, we could make a difference for our country and save our next generation. Obviously, the CDC and the CPSC and all the regulatory agency heads and most of the elected officials are supporting the lobbyists   who are trying very hard to convince them that there is no relation to the health problem and the gasses emitted by the Chinese dry wall, some of the US made dry wall and now flooring. FYI, all the Toxicologists for all the States are told to lie as well (insider info).

Now that I’ve started reading it (I’m about a fifth of the way through), I’ll join the bandwagon in recommending “Inconclusive by Design,” which fingers the CDC and EPA (among others that originated inside these agencies) as acting in the interest of calming, rather than protecting, the population.

It focuses on the bad science and claims of “insufficient manpower” regarding the hundreds of “superfund” sites around the country, but articles like this show that nothing has changed in the years since it was written.

It’s about seventy pages, not difficult to follow, and a free download (PDF).

As to Chinese manufacturing, keep in mind that many factories (including Foxconn, where almost all our computers and phones come from, at some level) have replaced alcohol cleansers for electronics with highly toxic hexane, with no exposure precautions for the workers.  If they’re willing to do that (and worse, honestly) to employees, I wouldn’t bet on their seeing a high value in American consumers half a world away.

I was disappointed that so little was said about the ingredients in Chinese drywall. I have come across comments on the Internet stating that although half-inch Chinese drywall is thinner than half-inch U.S. drywall, it is approximately 18% heavier because it contains more organic compounds than U.S. drywall. Another comment I found said that ship containers could only be filled half full because of the added weight. Some drywall installers even refused to use it because it was so much more difficult to work with. There are concerns that the defective drywall may actually pull loose from ceilings because it is heavier and weaker than U.S. drywall and that is precisely what has happened to the Chinese drywall in my shop.  I was personally offended that the CDC could claim a lack of scientific evidence even in the face of such overwhelming physical evidence.

Yet another ironic reflection on the collapse of globalized society.  May the Universe make the end come quickly so that we have a sporting chance of surviving as a species.  Evolution sets the tests, extinction is an F grade.  I remain a fan of limited high altitude (200+ miles)nuclear explosions to melt the integrated circuits and clear the sky of satellites.  Think of it as hitting “Reset” when the machine locks up.

herb

I seen where the senators said they may pressure the insurance companies to pay. Wow is that the best plan they can come up with. No 1 is that the insurance companies is not liable for a manufacturing problem unless they are the insurers of the manufacturer. They need to force the manufacturers to pay for the repairs as they are the ones that created the mess. Once again we have no balls in Govt. if we did the problem would be solved in 06.

Brenda Brincku

Dec. 8, 2011, 5:52 p.m.

Please watch our YouTube videos -
A Cry for Help - Brincku & Brincku House
Please look at our home & tell me my wires don’t need to come out. Our home looks likes swiss cheese. Our home has 100% American drywall & we have the same problems like the Chinese drywall. Every board in our home has been checked & they found no Chinese. I well water has been checked over & over & it’s not our water causing the problem. CPSC & our insuance company said our water is no problem.

Really, another law on the books? That is a great solution….if your a lawyer. This is simple, find out where the item that your considering using is made before you buy, and then don’t buy Chinese! I am a home builder and that is what we are trying to do. The most difficult issue for us is finding faucets, light fixtures and ceiling fans not made in China. It sure limits ones options. Most of my clients I have worked for are willing to spend a little more if they know they are getting better quality.

I do feel for those stuck with the contaminated drywall. If your waiting for the Chinese government to pick up the bill, well, thats going to be a long wait. Perhaps they’ll just take it off our tab, a half a days intrest on what we owe them would probally cover it.

Bruce Stewart

Dec. 9, 2011, 11:12 p.m.

Is this article implying less stringent import rules for China than American and European countries?  What kind of sick politics do we have going on here?

I’ve always tried to avoid Chinese goods but now will try even harder. We don’t have to have CHEAP everything!  Cheap plumbing, cheap electrical, cheap carpet, cheap, cheap, cheap, we sound like a bunch of baby chicks.

It’s good to bring these things to light because most people would just think drywall is drywall.  Now I think people building a new home are more aware, I am.

Raymond Tamburello Jr

Dec. 10, 2011, 9:02 a.m.

Good Article!  What do you do if you have or think you may have bad Drywall?  Who tests Gypsum?  I imagine everyone should test before they buy a home.
You can go to the CPSC public database website to report your problem with your laminate flooring. https://www.saferproducts.gov/CPSRMSPublic/Incidents/ReportIncident.aspx
To learn more about what this toxic import has done to American families, read their stories at: http://www.victimschinesedrywall.com/FamilyStories.aspx.
Here you will find numerous family stories that were sent, back in early October of 2011, to President Obama, Senators, Congressman and numerous media outlets.
While I am thankful that this hearing was held by the Senate subcommittee it is difficult, after 2.5 years of gross mishandling of this disaster,  to hold on to any hope for a resolution as we all watch our financial well being become decimated because of this toxic product that was allowed into our country.
Avoid buying ANYTHING made in China.

It seems very likely that globalization will not work with China, when a country takes a back seat approach to this CDW diaster it’s time we abandon China. Remove them from favorite trading status and please bring back the individuals that were hired by the CPSC to help Chinese companies meet our manufacturing guidelines. A total gross waste of taxpayers money.As for Insurane dollars paying sure when they do every homeowner will foot the bill for the gross manufactuering flaws.through higher premium dollars. It is high time the federal government presses China to take care of their resposibility. Yes this is a China problem and the building industry let it fester out of control
enabling many more unsuspecting homeowners to get taken.
    The next diaster is on the horizon will it be in the form of injectable medication or vaccine from China. So next time flu shots come out please ask country of orgin, for the life you save may be your own or a loved one.

Bottom line is since our government do not have any balls to face the Chinese, we stop buying Chinese made products. I we start it now d spread the word around to friends and family in five year’s we could take back our country from all this dangerous toxic stuff coming from China, Other countries began not to import from China already, have some balls to take down China, we just have to be proactive on not buying Chinese products.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Tainted Drywall

Tainted Drywall: How Companies Kept Silent While Homeowners Suffered

Foul air from Chinese-made drywall has created a nightmare for thousands of homeowners.

The Story So Far

ProPublica and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune began examining in May 2010 what was—or wasn’t—being done to help people whose homes had been built with contaminated drywall. The problematic drywall, much of it imported from China, emitted foul odors and frequently caused mysterious failures of new appliances and electronics. Worse yet, some residents complained of serious respiratory problems, bloody noses, and migraines.
More »

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