It all started with a whiff of sulphur.
In the home of Kathy Foster and Drew Rohnke, and in some of the other houses throughout their two-year-old subdivision in Boynton Beach, Fla., the smell was noxious -- like a box of lit matches, or rotten eggs.
Not to mention that their new air conditioning unit quit working -- more than once. That's when Foster and Rohnke began to realize that something eating away at their $750,000 home, from the inside out.
"Our air-conditioning equipment was turning black," said Foster. "We had them replaced, and within three months, they were black again."
Foster and Rohnke weren't the only ones. Within a few weeks, word started to spread throughout the cul-de-sacs and winding drives of their development, the upscale Cobblestone Creek. As with other communities across the country, some houses have the tainted drywall, others -- possibly even the house next door -- do not. It all depends on which shipment went into which house.
"We had heard from a friend who had some issues with his kids becoming sick," said Jarrod Bookman. "And he asked had we ever heard of Chinese drywall. And we said no, what's it about? 'Have you noticed your air conditioner coils blackened? Or any of the copper wires in your outlets blackened?' I never even thought twice to look at it."
Chinese drywall, as the name implies, is wallboard imported from China, and much of it has been tainted. Estimates are that 90 million pounds of it was brought into the country during 2006 and 2007, during the height of the housing boom. That's when Jarrod and Sheryl Bookman's house was built.
To find out if they had it, the Bookmans called Howard Ehrsam, a home inspector who is now devoting his business to this problem. Unscrewing outlet covers, poking around in air-conditioner coils, getting down on his hands and knees in the kitchen to check behind the Bookman's refrigerator, Ehrsam founds the blackened copper that points to Chinese drywall damage. "It's indicative of being throughout the entire home," said Ehrsam. "This is as bad or worse as I've seen."
The Environmental Protection Agency now said the drywall is tainted with sulphur and another chemical, but it's not yet known how they got into the drywall. One theory holds that it was mined naturally, but more recently, experts believe the drywall may have been manufactured from the material cleaned out of smokestacks at China's coal-fired plants.
However it was made, it appears to leach chemicals into the air in tens of thousands of homes built in the last eight years all across the country. People have started to complain of nosebleeds and headaches, but it's unclear whether Chinese drywall is the cause. Kathy Foster didn't wait to find out. She moved her family out of its house into a rental nearby.
"We are currently paying our mortgage," said Foster, standing in the family room of the rental. "We are paying our homeowners' association dues and still paying taxes and insurance on the other home, plus paying the rental fees on this home and coming out of pocket for first, last, security deposit."
All told it's costing Kathy $8,000 a month. "If it's putting holes in copper piping and turning coils black, my membranes aren't much stronger than that and so, as a mom, I'm concerned," she said.