The term "toxic drywall" popped up on the news radar in 2008, when homeowners in Florida started to get attention over their complaints that their homes smelled like rotten eggs.

It was even worse than a lousy smell, many complained: Their household wiring was turning black, as were their air-conditioners’ evaporator coils, rendering them useless. Others said they had to move out because the odor in the homes was making them sick.

Federal and state investigators started looking into the complaints, which came mostly from Florida and the Atlantic Coast, though homeowners from as far away as California and South Dakota have contacted the federal government with their concerns about the unpleasant smells.

The term "toxic drywall" popped up on the news radar in 2008, when homeowners in Florida started to get attention over their complaints that their homes smelled like rotten eggs.

It was even worse than a lousy smell, many complained: Their household wiring was turning black, as were their air-conditioners’ evaporator coils, rendering them useless. Others said they had to move out because the odor in the homes was making them sick.

Federal and state investigators started looking into the complaints, which came mostly from Florida and the Atlantic Coast, though homeowners from as far away as California and South Dakota have contacted the federal government with their concerns about the unpleasant smells.

The investigators pinpointed a primary culprit: drywall manufactured in China and installed at the height of the housing boom, primarily in 2005 and 2006, though wallboard from other sources and other years also may be tainted, according to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

Identifying the problem may be the easy part: Remedying it may require drastic actions.

Five things to know about problem drywall:

1. So far, the CPSC has received complaints from 3,300 homeowners in 37 states, according to Patty Davis, a spokesperson for the government organization. Most of those complaints came through a commission hotline — (800) 638-2772 — or through its website, www.cpsc.gov/cgibin/drywall.aspx.

"We’re continuing to encourage consumers who feel they have the problem to contact us," Davis said. "We’ve been working to get a handle on the scope of the problem."

"It’s important for our investigation protocol, and it can help the homeowner decide if they have problem drywall or not," she said.

2. The smelly drywall’s effects on human health haven’t been firmly established, Davis said.

Residents of homes with the problem drywall have complained of bloody coughs and bloody noses, eye irritation, insomnia, rashes, upper respiratory problems and headaches.

3. CPSC says the first step in identifying problematic drywall is to confirm that it meets two criteria: A visual inspection must show blackening of copper electrical wiring and/or air-conditioning evaporator coils, and the drywall must have been installed between 2001-08.

Since it’s possible that corrosion can occur for other reasons, homes with drywall installed from 2005-08 must meet two of the four following criteria to be considered problematic:

  • The metal corrosion in the home must match specific chemical analysis;
  • Certain chemical markers must be found in the drywall;
  • Certain markings must be on the drywall;
  • Specific chemical emissions from the drywall must be detected.

Homes with new drywall installed from 2001-04 must meet all four of these requirements.

CPSC’s protocol to help identify problem drywall is at http://www.cpsc.gov/library/foia/foia10/os/EHESourceMarkers.pdf.

Davis said homeowners with these issues typically complain of rotten-egg odor, though Davis, who has been in one home that contains the problem drywall, said the scent was more like a "burning-match smell."

4. Getting rid of the toxic wallboard may require a lot of work, not to mention expense: The CPSC recommends ripping out all of the suspect drywall. That’s just the start.

"In April, CSPC and the Department of Housing and Urban Development recommended, based on our scientific study, that consumers also remove electrical components and wiring, gas piping, fire-suppression sprinkler systems, smoke alarms and carbon-monoxide alarms," Davis said.

Numerous media reports have suggested that some homeowners could be facing costs of $50,000 and up to correct the problem.

CSPS’s explanation of its remediation guidelines is at www.cpsc.gov/info/drywall/guidance0410.pdf.

CSPS recommends homeowners trying to remedy the drywall problem should deal with a contractor that specializes in environmental remediation, and cautions that publicity from the drywall has inspired fraudsters who promise to relieve the conditions, so consumers should check contractors’ credentials.

5. There may be some avenues of financial relief.

"First, talk to your builder," Davis said. Some homebuilders and remodelers have voluntarily paid to remediate homes they constructed that have the drywall. Lennar Corp., for example, has set aside funds to repair hundreds of homes in Florida.

Some consumers have turned to their courts, suing their builders. And some builders, in turn, have sued the wallboard exporters who sold them the building material.

This spring, a federal judge made separate awards to homeowners in New Orleans and Virginia to compensate for the cost of remediating their homes. Attorneys in the cases said the awards establish a precedent for other suits that are under way.

In May, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that homeowners with tainted drywall whose mortgages are insured by the Federal Housing Administration may be eligible for government assistance with the remediation.

FHA Commissioner David Stevens announced he had instructed FHA-approved mortgage lenders to temporary suspend or reduce loan payments for homeowners affected by the drywall.

In addition, HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program might also be able to provide financial assistance. Davis said homeowners who seek such FHA or HUD help should contact their lenders for more information.

Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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