May 22, 2009 -- 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."
'Nobody Can Tell Us If It's Unsafe'
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.
Jarrod and Sheryl Bookman, who have 8-month-old boy triplets, say they can't afford to rent and pay a mortgage. But they are desperate to know just want to know what the drywall is doing to their health. "Nobody can tell us if it is unsafe. If it is unhealthy to live here," said Sheryl Bookman. "We don't know. No one can tell us."
That's because nobody knows. Right now, no fewer than eight government agencies are investigating the health effects of the defective drywall. So far, the tainted wallboard is corroding metal in homes in at least 12 states. Hardest hit are Florida and Louisiana.
Lawmakers Search for Answers
Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana have held congressional hearings this week to demand answers.
"You understand I don't want words," Nelson said during the hearing Thursday. "I want action."
"This is pointing out a real need, or real gap in some of the oversight. And it needs to be fixed," Landrieu said earlier this week.
Asked how the tainted product made its way into the United States, Nelson said, "That's the point. Why hasn't the Consumer Product Safety commission been doing it's job? We went through this drill about three years ago with the Chinese toys that were defective, remember that?"
But why were contractors using Chinese drywall in the first place?
"It depends," said Ehrsam. "They say because of supply and demand. There was no supply, domestically, which is legitimate. But it was also a lot cheaper. As cheap as $3 a sheet for Chinese drywall." According to Ehrsam, at one point, the U.S. cost had reached $22 per sheet.
Northstar Developers, the company that built both Kathy Foster and the Bookmans' houses, sent a statement, saying this problem is "not unique" to the homes they built. Northstar also pointed out that it's working with "local, state and federal agencies, multiple insurance companies, drywall contractors, drywall manufacturers, technical consultants and industry leaders to pursue viable resolutions."
"This was our dream home," said Jarrod Bookman. "And now it's our nightmare."
New Community Turned Ghost Town?
Bookman's insurance company has told him that the drywall emits a "pollutant," which is not covered. And as his house sits corroding from within, he's concerned that it's losing value.
"Is it financially feasible to pay a mortgage on a home that we are not safe in or not able to live in?" asked Bookman. "As well as go move to an apartment, or rent a home? No, we're not in that position. So we don't know what we're going to do."
The Bookmans are exploring their options with an attorney. Kathy Foster is suing her builder, along with the company that made the drywall. She also wants relief -- perhaps a temporary abatement on payments -- from her mortgage company.
"I have a toxic asset, and it's infected, so I'm going to start talking to my mortgage company. We both are partners on the toxic asset, which is just not a good thing for any of us," said Foster.
And the problem remains: how to fix the thousands of houses that are affected by the toxic drywall. Is it enough to remove the tainted drywall, or will the wiring, plumbing and other metal need to be replaced as well? Kathy Foster has even considered that their dream homes may need to be torn down.
"If that's what it takes and if we can rebuild and make it better, so that we never have to say or disclose that our house had Chinese drywall," Foster said.
Howard Ehrsam agreed that finding a fix would be difficult and expensive.
"It's one thing to replace the drywall," said Ehrsam. "But you have to replace all the plumbing, the electric, the metal studs, the hurricane straps. It goes on and on." Asked what the answer is, he said, "There is no answer right now. They're working on it."
In the meantime, homeowners said they worry that if all the players didn't pull together to find an answer soon, affected communities could become ghost towns.