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Chinese Drywall Problems: Health Effects and Property Damage from Contaminated Drywall

Chinese drywall has been linked to health problems and metal corrosion in homes.

Over 3,000 homeowners have reported that drywall imported from China has caused health problems and metal corrosion in their homes. The contaminated drywall has high levels of sulfur, which may be responsible for a rotten egg smell in affected homes, blackened or corroded pipes, failure of air conditioners and other household appliances, and health problems such as asthma, coughing, headaches, sore throats, and irritated eyes.

Most of the contaminated drywall was installed in 2006 and 2007 following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, when a spike in home construction caused a shortage of drywall made in the United States. The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has received complaints from homeowners in 37 states, although the bulk of reports come from Florida and several other states in the south.

This article discusses the major complaints associated with Chinese drywall, legal claims based on drywall problems, and what you should do if you think you have contaminated drywall in your home.

Signs of Contaminated Drywall Problems

Homeowners with contaminated drywall usually notice:

  • a rotten egg smell within the home
  • corrosion or blackening of metal items within the walls or protruding from the walls, and
  • frequent failures of air conditioning units and other appliances and electronics.

The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has issued guidelines for identifying contaminated drywall. The guidelines recommend a two-step process: first a threshold inquiry and then, if the threshold is met, a further investigation seeking corroborating evidence.

Threshold Inspection

In order to meet the threshold inspection, homeowners must (1) have blackened copper electrical wiring or air conditioning evaporator coils, and (2) have had the drywall installed between 2001 and 2008.

Corroborating Conditions

However, because metal corrosion may be caused by many factors, the presence of blackened wiring in the home does not definitively point to contaminated drywall. For this reason, the CPSC advises homeowners and contractors to look for further evidence that drywall is the likely culprit.

According to the CPSC, contaminated drywall is indicated if two of the below corroborating conditions are present and drywall was installed between 2005 and 2008 — or if four of the below corroborating conditions are present and the drywall was installed between 2001 and 2004:

  • copper sulfide or sulfur in the home as confirmed by tests
  • drywall is marked as coming from China
  • high levels of strontium in drywall core
  • high levels of sulfur in drywall core
  • elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide, carbonyl sulfide, or carbon disulfide emitted from drywall when tested in a chamber, and
  • corrosion of copper metal when placed in a test chamber with drywall samples.

To learn more about the CPSC guidelines — including details about the tests and results — visit the CPSC’s Drywall Information Center at www.cpsc.gov/info/drywall/index.html. The CPSC will revise the guidelines as more information becomes available.

Health Problems Associated With Problem Drywall

Is Chinese drywall making you sick? Health problems that may be caused by contaminated Chinese drywall include:

  • irritated and itchy eyes and skin
  • difficulty in breathing
  • persistent cough
  • bloody nose
  • runny nose
  • recurrent headaches
  • sore throats
  • sinus infections, and
  • asthma attacks.

Although scientific research has yet to document a definitive link between health risks and contaminated drywall, health advocates suspect a causal link does exist. That’s because consumers report that symptoms disappear or lessen when they are away from the home, and then reappear or worsen when they are in the home. In order to establish causality, consumers must prove that their health problems are caused by the drywall and not by other factors. (To learn more about what plaintiffs must prove in a toxic tort case, see Nolo’s article Toxic Torts: Legal Theories of Liability.)

Property Damage Caused by Problem Drywall

Contaminated drywall may also cause property damage in homes.

Damage to Electronics and Appliances

Consumers allege that the contaminated drywall corrodes piping and wiring, which causes electronic devices and household appliances to work intermittently or fail completely. Examples of components and devices that may be affected by contaminated Chinese drywall include:

  • central air conditioning evaporator coils
  • refrigerators
  • dishwashers
  • televisions, and
  • video game systems.

Costs of Remediation

Homeowners affected by contaminated Chinese drywall may find themselves saddled with large remediation costs — expenses incurred in removing the contaminated drywall and installing new, problem-free drywall. As of yet, there is no standard recommendation for remediation. For example, it is unclear whether removal of sheetrock is necessary to rid the home of problems associated with the contamination.

Decreased Home Value

Not surprisingly, the market value often decreases in homes that have — or are suspected to have — contaminated Chinese drywall.

Contaminated Drywall Lawsuits and Insurance Claims

The wave of complaints about drywall contamination has led attorneys in Florida and several southern states to file class action lawsuits on behalf of homeowners. Other consumers have filed individual lawsuits. In April 2010, a federal court awarded $2.6 million to a number of Virginia families whose homes were damaged by bad drywall.

Legal Theories

Lawsuits over Chinese drywall use a number of legal theories to seek money damages. These theories include negligence, strict product liability, breach of warranty, fraudulent misrepresentation, and fraudulent concealment. The elements of each legal theory vary but, for the most part, consumers must prove that the toxic drywall caused a defective condition within the home or caused someone in the home to become ill. (To learn more about the legal theories used in toxic tort cases, see Nolo’s article Toxic Torts: Legal Theories of Liability.)

Who to Sue

If you have been injured or suffered property damage from contaminated drywall, figuring out who to sue can be tricky. As a general rule in these types of cases, plaintiffs usually sue anyone that could have a possible link to the drywall, such as:

  • the drywall manufacturer
  • drywall importers
  • the builder
  • drywall installers, and
  • anyone else that is involved in the drywall distribution chain.

Homeowners’ Insurance Claims

It may be wise to also file a claim against your homeowners’ insurance policy. So far, insurance companies have maintained that they are not liable for contaminated drywall, often citing pollution exclusions in the policy. However, courts have yet to rule on this issue. It’s possible that at a later date courts will require some homeowners’ insurance policies to cover homeowner losses caused by contaminated drywall. So file a claim to be on the safe side.

What to Do If You Suspect Problem Drywall in Your Home

The CPSC recommends the following steps if you suspect you may have problem drywall in your home:

  • If you have adverse health symptoms, see your doctor immediately.
  • If you have safety concerns about electrical problems or fire hazards, consult with an electrician or building inspector immediately.
  • Report the suspected drywall problem to the CPSC by calling 800-638-2772 or visiting the CPSC’s Drywall Information Center at www.cpsc.gov/info/drywall/index.html.
  • Consider reporting the problem to your homeowner’s insurance company and the homebuilder or remodeler that installed the drywall.

Getting Help

The legal landscape regarding contaminated drywall is still developing. Class action lawsuits have been filed, the liability of homeowners insurance companies may be challenged in court, and the CPSC or other agencies continue to investigate the problem. If you suspect you have contaminated drywall, in addition to alerting the CPSC, you may wish to contact an attorney specializing in drywall litigation to find out the current status of the law, as well as insurance coverage issues.

by: Kathleen Michon, Attorney

Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Nolo, Copyright 2010, Nolo.com

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