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The Tampa Tribune: Chinese Drywall A Building Health Problem In Florida (06-09-2009)

By Shannon Behken

RIVERVIEW – Shortly after Frances Gari-Colon moved into her Riverview town home, she started to get itchy eyes and headaches.

Then the air conditioner stopped working – the copper coils turned black. The builder replaced them, but it happened three more times.

“Last year, I couldn’t get my contacts out of my eyes because they were so dry,” Gari-Colon said. “When I took them out, my doctor says it peeled the first layer of my eyes off.”

Gari-Colon and roughly 25 other homeowners in the River Walk community, off U.S. 301, learned recently they have drywall from China in their homes. Experts say the drywall emits a corrosive gas that damages appliances, gives off a rotten-egg stench and may cause health problems.

River Walk isn’t alone. As many as 100,000 homes nationwide have the drywall, some experts estimate, and Florida appears to be at the epicenter of the growing problem. The Florida Department of Health has received nearly 400 complaints from homeowners and several federal agencies, including the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, are investigating. Of the 365 complaints the commission has logged, most have come from Florida, according to its Web site.

Dozens of builders used the drywall, mainly from 2004 through 2007. Homeowners have complained of sore throats, dry eyes, nosebleeds and dizziness. Some say they have been advised by their doctors to move out of their homes.

Columbus, Ohio-based MI Homes, which built River Walk, is offering to relocate residents and replace all infected drywall and appliances, said Marshall Gray, area president of the Tampa division of MI Homes.

“This is isolated to two or three of our communities in the Tampa area, and we’re working with our customers to take care of the problems.”

Gray said MI and other builders had no way of knowing the drywall was bad because it was purchased by subcontractors who were hired by builders. During the housing boom and immediately after hurricanes in Florida and Louisiana, builders ran into a drywall shortage. Subcontractors turned to China.

“We plan to bring the homes back down to the stud stage,” Gray said. “It’s a tremendous amount of work and will cost close to six figures to repair each unit.”

The problem with the drywall first surfaced in Florida, experts say, because humidity brings out the corrosive gas more quickly. It has been found in homes in others states, including Louisiana, California, Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia.

The Environmental Protection Agency tested China-made wallboard in two Florida homes and discovered sulfur and two organic compounds associated with acrylic paint, according to a report released in May.

Officials with the Florida Department of Health say they have not determined whether the drywall poses a health risk.

MI offered to pay residents’ relocation costs and replace equipment tainted by the drywall.

Other builders have offered similar agreements. Some, such as MI, require homeowners to agree not to sue if they discover later that the drywall caused an illness.

“That’s unacceptable,” said Jack Landskroner, a Cleveland lawyer with Landskroner-Grieco-Madden Ltd., who is representing MI homeowners across the nation. “These people bought homes to raise their families, not toxic waste dumps that make them sick.”

Landskroner said builders need to offer extended warranties and address health and equity concerns.

Homeowners may have trouble selling their homes because of the drywall. That’s a concern for Gari-Colon, but she said she signed the agreement with MI because she wants her home repaired as soon as possible.

“I just want to come home to a new, safe home,” she said. “I think MI has really stepped up to the plate. They’re trying to do the right thing, and I don’t think this was their fault.”

Her neighbor, Bill Martineau, is grappling with whether to sign the agreement. He wants his town home repaired but worries about signing over rights to sue if he and his wife, Cindy, develop a health problem.

Martineau says the air conditioner has been repaired six times, light bulbs have to be changed often and silver jewelry tarnishes. The couple have had headaches, dry eyes and respiratory problems.

“We don’t have many choices,” Martineau said. “It’s a take-it-or-leave-it kind of agreement.”