By Cain Burdeau
The Associated Press
CHALMETTE, La. (AP) — Thomas Stone and his wife rebuilt their home after it was flooded by six feet of water during Hurricane Katrina and never dreamed they would face the agony of tearing it apart.
They tapped into Lauren Stone’s 401(k) retirement savings and saved $1,000 by installing Chinese-made drywall throughout their two-story home. The Stones are currently among hundreds of Katrina victims facing another disaster.
Sulfur-emitting wallboard from China is wreaking havoc in homes, charring electrical wires, eating away at jewelry, silverware and other valuables, and possibly even sickening families.
“The bathroom upstairs has a corroded shower-head, the door hinges are rusting out,” said 50-year-old Thomas Stone, the longtime fire chief of St. Bernard Parish, outside New Orleans. And then there’s the stench, like rotten eggs, that seems to get worse with the heat and humidity.
“It makes me wish there would be another flood to wash it out,” said his wife, Lauren, 49.
Chinese manufacturers inundated the U.S. market with more than 500 million pounds of drywall around the same time Katrina was flooding New Orleans, an Associated Press review of shipping records has found.
That year, enough wallboard was imported from China to build some 34,000 homes of roughly 2,000 square feet each, according to the AP’s analysis and estimates supplied by the nationwide drywall supplier United States Gypsum. But experts and advocates say many homes may have been built with a mixture of Chinese and domestic drywall — which could push the number of affected homes to 100,000 or more.
The drywall apparently causes a chemical reaction that corrodes metal and gives off the rotten-egg stench.
Researchers do not know what causes it, but possible culprits include fumigants sprayed on the drywall and materials inside of it. The Chinese drywall is also made with a coal byproduct called fly ash that is less refined than the form used by U.S. drywall makers.
The Chinese ministries of commerce, construction and industry, and the Admin-istration of Quality Supervision Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the AP, although Chinese media have reported that AQSIQ, which enforces product quality standards, was investigating.
The U.S. Product Consumer Safety Commission and a number of states are investigating the extent of the problem, what’s causing it, and whether it poses ser-ious health risks. But it could be years be-fore the full extent of the problem is known.
“We’ve been through the storms. We heard about the formaldehyde,” Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals spokesman Renne Milligan said, referring to a previous housing nightmare in which tests showed elevated levels of formaldehyde in hundreds of FEMA-issued trailers.
“Some of our residents are still living through that, and now we’re talking about this drywall,” Milligan said.
Governors in Louisiana and Florida are asking for federal assistance, and members of Congress are calling for a recall and a ban on future imports.
Like hundreds of other homeowners from Florida to Texas, the Stones have signed on to a class-action lawsuit directed against the manufacturers, suppliers, and builders.
Some of the companies told the AP that they are looking into the complaints but downplayed the possibility of health risks.
No U.S. agency regulates the chemical compounds used in imported drywall.
David Sides, manager of River City Materials, a drywall supplier based in Jefferson, La., remembers when the Chinese product began saturating the U.S. market.
“Florida got hit with four hurricanes and that’s what started the importing from overseas,” said Sides, who said his company did not sell the drywall. “So many people purchased board from overseas. So many people tried to cash in on shortages here.” (end)
Associated Press writers Brian Skoloff in West Palm Beach, Fla., and Joe McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.