Contaminated Drywall

Imagine for a moment, you have a brand new home, or renovation. You move in, and those familiar smells are there: plastic, paint, rotten eggs. You think you just need to get used to the “new home smell” and begin building your life there. Now imagine not only do you have to get used to a rotten-egg smell (which is not normal for product off-gassing) but that smell is destroying both your body and your home.

During the Easter long weekend I was flipping through channels and immediately stopped on an episode the PBS show Need to Know. I was horrified to learn that in Virginia, Louisiana and Florida, people are getting sick from drywall, of Chinese origin, that is off-gassing sulphuric gasses (hydrogen sulfide). Not only are people suffering from headaches, irritated eyes and skin, coughs, etc. but it is also corroding all the wiring within the building, including many appliances.

It amazes me how one bad product can do so much damage to a person’s health and to their own home. Off-gassing is something dealt with frequently in sustainable design; it affects the basic health of anyone, especially those with immune systems who may be slightly compromised. Hospitals in the last decade began specifying low VOC(Volatile Organic Compounds) emissions to ensure patients weren’t subjected to airborne compounds prevent healing, and groups like LEED have prescribed methods for handling off-gassing prior to move-in. The problem here is that the drywall is off-gassing very badly, to the point where people are simply walking away from their homes and declaring bankruptcy. It’s not a normal type of off-gassing either; hydrogen sulfide is considered poisonous. According to the study, the levels are considered mild, but given the effects on the testers in the house, ‘mild’ is still very serious.

Lawsuits are pending, but because its difficult to pursue litigation of a company from another company, there are few options that remain for homeowners. Those that can afford it have to go through a lengthy and costly remediation process. A lawsuit could take years, and the settlement even longer. If people can’t afford those options, they walk away.

As horrifying as this news is to the home-owners and the construction industry, it leads me to a few questions and thoughts.

First, if the contamination is so bad in those homes, and people are being forced to evacuate; if the testers are getting sick just from one visit to test the house, how healthy are the people in China working in the factories that make this drywall product? What chemicals are floating around in there, creating this poisonous off-gassing, and what impact does this have on the employees?

How are the construction workers who built using the drywall faring? They breathed the dust as these sheets were installed in multiple buildings.

Second, removal and gutting of the contaminated spaces is a must, even though its very costly. But how does this product get disposed of in a way that doesn’t harm people or the environment?

Third, I think the tracking portion of sustainable design comes into play here. Not only is it how some people found out where the drywall is coming from, but it will play a large role in litigation. If you can trace the product, the lawsuit becomes more specific, and directed to the people involved. The Need to Know episode indicates that they know the ports where the drywall was shipped to and the companies that picked it up. There is likely a huge paper trail, leading to many more victims.

Finally, is this product a tested and approved product in the US and Canada? If so, where are the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) from this product? Did the companies provide them to the installers? Were they even requested? Would they show the chemicals used in making these sulphuric gasses?

It’s difficult for homeowners who hire contractors directly to know to ask about products used in the construction of their homes. Maybe this is the benefit of sustainable design standards, they provide a reference point and a guideline for people to start making inquiries and comparing the products that may go into their buildings.

I will be curious to see what happens with this product in the future.

You can find the episode here.

Watch the full episode. See more Need To Know.