What's That Smell? Imported Drywall Leaves Florida Homeowners Fuming (Chicago Tribune)
Chicago Tribune, April 6, 2009
That's the question du jour in some Southern locales, where homeowners are learning that the rotten-egg scent of sulfur in their houses isn't a figment of their imaginations.
Welcome to Toxic Torts, the 2009 edition. In it, tainted drywall appears to be vying to become the new "black mold," and drywall-related class-action lawsuits are sprouting like crocuses. The suits, in general, claim that homes—mostly in Florida, though there also have been suits in Alabama and Louisiana—were built with drywall manufactured in China that gives off a sulfur smell and its gases corrode the homes' electrical wiring and sicken some residents.
The Florida Department of Health, responding to complaints from state residents, commissioned Unified Engineering of Aurora to test samples of the drywall, and announced the results late in March—concluding, however, that it still wasn't sure the material posed a health risk. It said the results are preliminary and that other testing is ongoing.
The analysis studied three types of the imported drywall from Florida houses, plus one American-manufactured brand that had been installed in a house that also contained the Chinese material. The report said the odor originated from the emission of volatile sulfur compounds and that the Chinese-manufactured drywall samples give off the odor when exposed to heat and moisture.
David Krause, a state toxicologist, said in a press conference that the problem may have shown up first in Florida because of the heat and moisture connections.
Homeowners in the lawsuits say they have experienced insomnia, nausea and allergic reaction-type symptoms such as itchy eyes and respiratory problems. Many also said that air-conditioning coils and wiring in their homes had an unusually high degree of corrosion.
The wallboard in most of the houses in question was installed roughly between 2005 and 2007, a period when drywall imports were high because of shortages of the domestically produced product in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and other storms.
At least four lawsuits have been filed in recent months against drywall manufacturers, distributors and home builders in Florida. Some builders there have voluntarily relocated homeowners while they replace the questionable drywall in the homes.
I spoke with Ervin Gonzales, a Coral Gables, Fla., lawyer, shortly after he filed one of the suits in March. Although the complaints are mostly confined to Florida, the litigation probably would expand nationwide, he said.
"We expect about 50,000 to 55,000 homes to be affected," he said.
Melanie Arnold, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health, said the state hadn't received any drywall-related complaints from homeowners here.
However, health departments in Virginia have said they are investigating the problem; one Virginia builder is inspecting Chinese-made drywall in nearly 60 homes it built, and has concluded that the material emits high levels of sulfur compounds that may damage mechanical and electrical systems.
There's a certain déjà vu here for anyone who remembers the mold frenzy that erupted earlier in this decade. At that time, literally thousands of lawsuits were filed against builders and others over claims that water infiltration had turned houses, schools and offices into veritable petri dishes, contaminated by mold that compromised the health of inhabitants. The suits, some of which resulted in multimillion-dollar judgments, popularized the term "toxic tort."
Although mold is widely present in nature and most of its variations are harmless to humans, some forms—often generically referred to as "black mold"—have been linked to serious illness, though many of those conclusions are hotly debated.
You don't hear so much about it these days, but mold-related litigation is still around. The sheer numbers of the cases began to fade after states capped the payouts that insurance companies could face in such suits.
Its legacy lives on, of course, in myriad home-sale disclosure requirements and in now-commonplace inspections for the substance by wary home buyers.
From a real estate market perspective, the drywall mess couldn't have emerged at a worse time for Florida, which continues to reel from the effects of the housing bubble. The Bradenton Herald, among others, is reporting that real estate agents there are starting to seek legal advice on handling buyer inquiries they're now getting about whether a given home contains the questionable drywall.
Krause told the press conference it could take months to come to any conclusions about medical aspects of the tainted drywall.
One thing is for sure, no matter what the research decides: The stuff causes headaches.
A ruff interviewAs if real estate agents didn't already have to please plenty of people in the course of snagging a listing, along comes Madison.
That would be Madison, uh, Spelling, the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier owned by Candy Spelling, who is looking to sell her home in the Holmby Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles.
And what a home it is. Spelling, widow of the legendary television producer Aaron Spelling, has put the house on the market for $150 million, apparently qualifying it as the most expensive home for sale on the market today.
The 56,500-square foot home contains more than 100 rooms, including a bowling alley, wine cellar, wine-tasting room, gift-wrapping room, library, gym, silver-storage room, barber shop, beauty salon ... you get the idea.
When Spelling interviewed real estate agents for the job, her security staff would bring little Madison into the room. If Spelling gleaned that Madison didn't like the candidate, the interview was over. Sally Forster Jones, a local Coldwell Banker agent, apparently passed the test, The Associated Press said.
Hear Mary Umberger at 12:49 and 11:15 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday and at 10:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday on WGN-AM 720. Write to her at Real Estate, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., 4th Floor, Chicago, IL 60611 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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