The beauty of 'American free-enterprise, capitalist democracy and the right to
make as much money as you can and spend it any way you choose -as long as
there's no law against it', is that it's relatively free of criticism until
someone suffers. Related, whether you think so or not, is that I'm
reminded of the 50s(?) TV series 'Maverick': "My pappy told me 'When someone
puts down a steak in front of you that you didn't order, you eat as much as you
can as fast as you can before the mistake is discovered."
Human Nature and Continuing Human Existence
July 4, 2009 Los Angeles Times
Chinese drywall blamed for odors and corrosion in U.S. homes
Health concerns are raised over the imported building material. Some drywall
made with radioactive phosphogypsum, a waste byproduct, was shipped to the U.S.
by at least four Chinese-based firms.
By Don Lee and Alana Semuels
Reporting from Los Angeles and Wuhan, China The final years of the U.S.
housing boom and a disastrous series of Gulf Coast hurricanes created a golden
opportunity for Chinese drywall manufacturers. With domestic suppliers unable
to keep up with demand, imports of Chinese drywall to the U.S. jumped 17-fold
in 2006 from the year before.
That imported drywall is now at the center of complaints of
foul odors seeping from walls. Hundreds of homeowners, most in Florida, have
also reported corrosion to their air conditioners, mirrors, electrical outlets
and even jewelry.
State and federal authorities have traced the problems to
Chinese-made drywall but haven't yet fully determined the causes. Some Chinese
experts, however, suspect that the culprit is a radioactive phosphorus
substance -- phosphogypsum -- that is banned for construction use in the U.S.
but has been used by Chinese manufacturers for almost a decade.
McCarthy home -Brian Tietz / For The Times
Emily and Keith McCarthy’s Estero, Fla., home was gutted and redone — with new
wiring and plumbing — to remove problematic drywall from China. Tests have been
inconclusive, but some think the culprit is radioactive phosphogypsum.
Copies of Chinese customs reports obtained by The Times,
along with interviews, indicate that drywall made with phosphogypsum was
shipped to the U.S. in 2006 by at least four Chinese-based manufacturers and
The health risk of phosphogypsum is uncertain, but industry
specialists say they are troubled by its widespread use and the possibility it
was exported, especially in light of recent incidents in which other Chinese
imports such as pet food, toys and candy were found to be contaminated with
toxic or unsafe substances.
"Considering the fact that phosphogypsum can cause corrosion,
something should be done," said Ding Dawu, a geoscientist and an authority on
gypsum processing in China. "Right now," he added, "there are no complaints [in
China] because most people don't know much about gypsum board and there are no
standards against it."
The Times contacted about 20 Chinese-based companies involved
in making or selling drywall. Most of them declined to comment about their
overseas business. Others offered conflicting answers or said they didn't know
whether their drywall contained the banned substance.
One exception was Beijing Building Materials Import & Export
Co. It was among at least 10 trading firms that exported drywall to the U.S. in
2006, according to the customs reports, which were provided by an industry
source and confirmed by the Chinese government's statistics compiler in Hong
The reports show that Beijing Building Materials shipped
nearly 38 million pounds of drywall to the U.S. in 2006. Sun Yong, the
company's vice president, said it didn't matter whether the wallboard was made
with mined gypsum or phosphogypsum.
"From China's customs side, there is no special inspection of
exported drywall," he said.
Health concerns, inconclusive tests
Phosphogypsum contains radium, prolonged exposure to which can lead to a higher
risk of lung cancer, and that is why the EPA banned phosphogypsum for use in
construction in 1989.
Dr. Paul Papanek, a board member of the Western Occupational
and Environmental Medical Assn., said the health effects of contact with
phosphogypsum are not immediate. Medical studies about how often the substance
causes cancer are inconclusive, he said.
Chinese building-material managers say they have seen an
increasing number of drywall makers mixing phosphogypsum in production. They
said the corrosion of coils and metals seen in American houses was consistent
with drywall made with that ingredient.
For similar reasons, a top manager at Tai'an Single
Mechanical & Electrical Technology Co., a supplier of gypsum-processing
equipment in Shandong province, also suspects phosphogypsum as a root
The manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity,
estimates that 80% of Chinese drywall makers use phosphogypsum because it is
cheap and there are no government restrictions.
Gypsum drywall in China is used largely for businesses, and
industry associations say there have been few complaints in China like those
from American homeowners.
So far, tests in the U.S. of Chinese-made drywall used in
American homes have not turned up evidence of phosphogypsum. In Florida, four
samples taken from troubled houses showed no indication of radium, said Lori
Streit, a scientist at Unified Engineering Inc., which conducted the
Streit said the rotten-egg-like odor and corrosion are
associated with volatile sulfuric acids, and some industry officials say that
could mean the drywall was made with gypsum from mines in eastern China's Tai
Mountain area, where ores have unusually high levels of sulfur compounds.
Knauf, a German company that has a joint-venture operation in
China and has been a primary target of lawsuits over bad drywall, has
acknowledged using gypsum from that area.
Which watchdog is responsible?
Ding, the geoscientist who has worked as a consultant in China's gypsum
industry for about 30 years, said some manufacturers began experimenting with
phosphogypsum at the start of the decade. He said some drywall plants in China
were now using 50% phosphogypsum as a base for plasterboard, others as much as
Some people in China liken the practice of mixing
phosphogypsum in drywall to the recent scandals involving melamine, the
industrial chemical that contaminated Chinese baby formula and animal feed.
Amid such heightened product-health concerns, officials at
China's quality watchdog agency have been investigating complaints about
Chinese-made drywall in the U.S., demanding that manufacturers submit samples
for analysis, according to company executives.
But the agency has not issued any public statement on the
probe, and officials did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.
In the U.S., federal authorities said there was no one
authority responsible for ensuring that imported drywall meets American
Consumer Product Safety Commission spokesman Joe Martyak said
his agency asks U.S. Customs and Border Protection to inspect items for which
there are mandatory testing requirements, such as children's toys. But there
are no such conditions for drywall, he said.
In interviews, officials with U.S. Customs, the Environmental
Protection Agency and the Department of Commerce all said their agencies were
not responsible for testing drywall. That may reflect the fact that imported
drywall is a relatively new phenomenon -- the U.S. used to have more than
enough from its own sources, made with gypsum from mines or synthetic gypsum
derived from coal combustion.
Waste byproduct is available, cheap
But in China, businesses began turning to phosphogypsum, in part because local
governments were eager to get rid of bulging stockpiles of the waste
Huge phosphogypsum dump sites can be seen in all corners of
China. Near the banks of the Yangtze River in central China's Wuhan area, raw
phosphogypsum is spread over 20 acres and packed 65 feet deep into the ground.
The smell of sulfur permeates the air. Workers at the site said the material
was given away to anyone willing to pay the transportation costs, a mere $1.75
No one knows how much phosphogypsum board from China was
shipped abroad. But in 2006, Chinese exports of drywall to the U.S. totaled a
record 503 million pounds valued at more than $25 million, according to Chinese
customs' statistics. That's enough for 32,000 homes.
(With the subsequent American housing market collapse,
Chinese drywall exports to the U.S. fell to just $507,000 in 2008 and are
expected to drop even more this year.)
Among the exporters in 2006 was Taishan Gypsum Co., a large
producer of phosphogypsum wallboard based in eastern Shandong province. Customs
reports show that Taishan sent about 10 million pounds of drywall to the U.S.
In interviews, Taishan executives said they were unclear
about the raw ingredient in the exported drywall.
At another drywall maker, Yunnan Waste Use Building Materials
Co., office director Zhang Wanwei acknowledged that his company focused on
making wallboard with phosphogypsum. But he said his firm "was one of the few
that bought the most advanced equipment to process phosphogypsum . . . because
if not handled properly, the quality of these boards may not be so good. And
they could contain materials that are bad for health."
Zhang declined to say whether the company exported gypsum
boards to the U.S.
"I don't know exactly how much phosphogypsum we use, but in
total we process several hundred tons of all kinds of gypsum every year," he
said. "We can get raw materials for our products at very low prices because
they are mainly industrial waste."