Miami Herald: Extent of Chinese Drywall problem questioned

Dec 1, 2009

The Miami Herald published this article on December 1, 2009

The Bradenton Herald

 As the Chinese drywall saga unfolded during the past year, one figure has been widely and often repeated: 100,000.

That is how many U.S. homes potentially could contain the allegedly defective building product, some have estimated. Multiple media outlets covering the drywall story — including The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal and the Bradenton Herald — have quoted the estimate, as have various federal and state elected officials

Now some are questioning if that figure — and the scope of the drywall problem itself — is exaggerated.

A spokesman for the lead federal agency investigating the drywall issue recently cautioned reporters about using the figure, saying it has not been substantiated.

“The best information we have to date is that, that number is overstated,” said Scott Wolfson, of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, citing a relatively low number of drywall complaints lodged with the agency.

But others contend the estimate is valid, perhaps even low, and that the number of complaints reflects only a fraction of the issue’s true scope.

“There’s a lot of people still in denial or unaware of this stuff,” said Thomas Martin, president of Americas Watchdog, a consumer-advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

The 100,000 figure’s origins are murky.

The earliest reference to it in a news story, according to a Google News search, is a Feb. 15 article in the Bradenton Herald. That story attributed the figure to Martin.

In a recent interview, Martin said his group based the 100,000-home estimate on site visits it made to homes with Chinese drywall as well as the number of calls it has received from homeowners.

If the group confirmed Chinese drywall in a random sampling of homes in a single subdivision, then it assumed all other homes built during the same phase of construction also had it, he said. Based on that, the group believes there are 16,000 affected homes just in the Fort Myers area, he said.

Martin said his group still stands behind its 100,000-home estimate, but acknowledged the method of calculating it was not scientific.

Later news stories based the 100,000-home estimate on shipping records of Chinese plasterboard imports during the U.S. building and post-hurricane reconstruction boom. Those stories quoted experts who said enough drywall — at least seven million boards, according to the CPSC’s latest count — was imported during that time period to potentially be in that many U.S. homes.

But that method assumed that all the drywall was defective, and that all of it has been installed within the United States. Neither is the case, officials said.

“Not all drywall is alike,” said Jack McCarthy, president of Environmental Health & Engineering, which the CPSC hired to test air quality inside homes with Chinese drywall. “It depends on what it’s made of.”

The CPSC also has found stockpiles of “hundreds of thousands” of unused Chinese drywall boards and told those holding it not to distribute it, Wolfson said.

One of those stockpiles is at Port Manatee.

Roughly 39,000 drywall boards are stored in the Port Manatee Forestry Terminal. It is what’s left of a 100,000-board shipment that the importer abandoned in 2006, said Capt. Rasmus Okland, the terminal’s manager.

The rest was sold before problems with another Chinese company’s drywall became widespread knowledge, he said.

“There was just one bad company out there,” Okland said. “My stuff was good, but now no one will buy it.”

If the drywall is in that many homes, then few homeowners are telling state and federal officials about it.

The Florida Department of Health has received 678 Chinese drywall complaints as of Tuesday. The department does not forward those complaints to the CPSC, spokeswoman Susan Smith said.

The CPSC has logged roughly 2,100 complaints from 32 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, with about two-thirds coming from Florida, Wolfson said.

“If you look at the empirical data at this time, it does not equate to 100,000 homes,” he said.

Wolfson acknowledged that not all homeowners with Chinese drywall have contacted the agency. That’s why the CPSC recently sent a letter to all U.S. state and territorial governors asking them to urge those homeowners to do so.

There are “numerous” homeowners who have not come forward for various reasons, including fear of losing insurance coverage or accepting the builder’s offer to replace the drywall for free, said a lawyer representing homeowners.

“I don’t see any association between complaints and the scope of the problem,” said Scott Weinstein, a Fort Myers attorney on the committee representing plaintiffs in federal litigation over Chinese drywall.

Weinstein also said he believes the 100,000-home estimate is valid, and that he and other plaintiff attorneys plan to prove it during the first drywall-related trial that is scheduled to begin in late January.

“Based on import records and shipping records, we believe the scope of the problem is what we said from the beginning: Enough of this drywall was imported to be in 100,000 homes,” he said. “Some of it may not have manifested itself yet because it’s in a drier climate, but it will eventually.”

Martin agreed, noting more Chinese drywall was imported through Pacific ports than those on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. It’s likely that drywall was installed throughout the western United States but hasn’t yet generated homeowner complaints because the area has lower humidity levels, he said.

“We initially assumed it would be easy to find [Chinese drywall] on the West Coast, but we didn’t know the dynamics back then,” Martin said.

Still, he said his group has found Chinese drywall in such places as Oklahoma City. But the drywall issue remains concentrated in Florida and other warmer states because higher humidity appears to accelerate the problem, Martin said.

Thus, he argues it’s inevitable the number of affected U.S. homes will continue to grow. Just how many remains to be seen, he said.

“I don’t think we’ll ever know what the final number will be, but it will be big,” Martin said.