Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Agency lays out Chinese drywall remedy

Apr 6, 2010

This article appeared in The Sarasota Herald-Tribune on April 3, 2010:

By Aaron Kessler

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission released its long-awaited guidance Friday for how to deal with homes affected by contaminated Chinese drywall, saying the product represented a safety risk and that gutting most of the home was required to solve the problem.

The CPSC’s “interim remediation standards,” released several weeks earlier than originally planned, call for complete removal of the tainted drywall, a move that may put an end to various quick fixes — sprays, gases, coatings and the like — being peddled by companies in Florida and elsewhere as a way to “neutralize” the wallboard in place.

The guidelines also call for replacing all components that the agency believes can pose a safety problem: electrical wiring, outlets, switches and circuit breakers, along with smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, fire sprinkler systems and gas lines.

Some of the recommendations are at odds with the findings of studies by other agencies and with some of what plaintiffs’ attorneys are seeking in broad federal litigation now under way in New Orleans.

The CSPC’s Friday announcement comes as a federal judge’s ruling in those cases is imminent.

Victims, politicians and consumer advocates have long complained that the CSPC and other federal agencies have been moving too slowly and narrowly in addressing the Chinese drywall issue.

CPSC chairwoman Inez Tenenbaum said Friday that she had “witnessed the frustrations and anxieties of the families who have suffered the hardships caused by this problem” and said they should “tear it all out and rebuild the interior of their homes.”

“Everyone’s home should be a safe haven,” Tenenbaum said in a strictly managed conference call Friday morning, during which reporters were only allowed to ask one question each. “Nothing can be more difficult than to watch their children suffer.”

The agency’s guidance does not call for removing the air-conditioning systems — or even the copper evaporator coils within — that have become the most widely known symbol of the tainted drywall.

Many affected homeowners have seen their air-conditioners fail multiple times, with coils that are supposed to last a decade or more corroding and failing in a fraction of that time.

CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said that the agency wanted to focus on “health and safety” issues in its guidance, and that it did not consider air-conditioning damage applicable.

The federal recommendations also do not call for all drywall in an affected home to be removed. The CPSC said that it did not believe “emissions from the problem drywall require replacement of non-problem drywall.”

That sentiment is at odds with studies in the last year commissioned by the groups ranging from the Florida Department of Health to home builders to the plaintiffs’ attorneys litigating in New Orleans. Those studies have found that domestic drywall taken from homes with Chinese drywall could be cross-contaminated and emit sulfur gases.

Builders like Lennar Corp. and Beazer Homes have been removing all drywall from tainted homes. A Beazer executive recently testified in New Orleans that it was virtually impossible to selectively remove only individual boards deemed “problematic,” or to even feasibly determine which ones were good versus bad.

Chinese drywall manufacturer Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co. Ltd., a defendant in the combined litigation, argued strenuously in favor of selective removal, but U.S. District Court Judge Eldon E. Fallon — who is presiding over the lawsuits — ruled there was no valid evidence for how such a process could work.

Fallon is expected to release his own court-ordered remediation protocols in a matter of weeks if not days.

The CPSC guidance does state that there are “scientific and practical challenges” to accomplishing selective removal, and therefore recommends that until that is overcome, all drywall in an affected home should be removed.

Just how homeowners are supposed to proceed with any repairs remains unclear.

Tenenbaum said the Obama administration will continue to press the Chinese government for help, and cited the litigation moving forward in Fallon’s court as a way of providing relief. But she also clearly put the onus back on Congress to step in and take action.

“Congress now has a clear picture with this remediation guidance how to set policy going forward,” Tenenbaum said. “We will continue to do some other wrap up tests and get further information, but this is what people in Congress have been waiting for as well as homeowners.”

On Friday, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, said the CPSC report showed that “the drywall is bad enough to require the stuff to be removed from houses.”

“Now the question is: Who pays for it?” the senator said. “The way I see it, homeowners didn’t cause this. The manufacturers in China did. That’s why we’ve got to go after the Chinese government now.”

Wolfson, the CPSC spokesman, also made it clear Friday that the federal investigation is not focused solely on Chinese-made wallboard, but also includes problems reported from domestic drywall sources.

“There are homes that have reported to us that have American drywall,” Wolfson said, putting that number at more than two dozen. “If you are a homeowner, no matter what kind of drywall you have or where it comes from, report to us. We want to know.”

Wolfson said the guidelines were designed for all homes exhibiting the symptoms of tainted drywall, not just those with Chinese-manufactured board.

In terms of CPSC’s apparent endorsement of selective removal, Wolfson said removing of a home’s wiring could necessitate removal of most drywall in an affected home.

“In carrying out this protocol, we are recommending all electrical wiring must be taken out and replaced, so non-problem drywall may need to be taken down to do the full remediation we’re recommending,” he said.

Tenenbaum said part of her agency’s rationale for selective removal was data from a study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory showing that Chinese board released sulfur gases at a much higher rate than domestic board.

But under questioning Friday morning, Tenenbaum said no potentially cross-contaminated samples — domestic drywall that was present in homes affected by corrosive Chinese drywall — had actually been tested in that study.

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