Economy

Chinese drywall finds many foes on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON — Senators and federal regulators joined hands Thursday in efforts to resolve health and structural problems linked to the use of Chinese drywall in thousands of new homes.

"We've got to get to the bottom of this because our people are potentially in danger," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., whose state has 35,000 to 50,000 potentially affected homes.

"We are all homeowners and we understand the urgency of the issue," concurred Lori Saltzman, the division director of the Office of Health Services for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the agency that's heading the drywall investigation.

Members of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance said they'd seek $2 million in emergency help mainly to make the research go faster. Saltzman said her agency and others would move quickly without waiting for the money.

The urgent cooperation follows complaints from residents in 16 states — principally Florida and Louisiana but including Texas, California, Washington state and the Carolinas — of a "rotten egg" smell, corroding metals and ailments such as persistent coughs and itchy eyes. Residents and Consumer Product Safety Commission investigators think that these problems are linked to drywall produced in China.

Most of the affected homes were built in 2006 and 2007 after severe hurricanes exhausted supplies of U.S. drywall. Builders turned to China, buying enough drywall to cover the state of Rhode Island, according to Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., the subcommittee's chairman.

Environmental Protection Agency lab findings released Tuesday showed that the Chinese drywall contained sulfur compounds and other chemicals that aren't in U.S.-made drywall. The next step, EPA officials said, is to see whether the compounds and the complaints are linked.

Saltzman said the research included testing domestic and Chinese drywall under climate conditions like those in the affected states. A strategy for identifying and measuring chemicals in the air under those conditions will be completed by June, she said.

In the meantime, her agency will set up a Web site as soon as possible at http://www.cpsc.gov/drywall to provide homeowners with updates and answer questions related to Chinese drywall.

The commission is also in talks with China to trace suspect drywall back to its manufacturers, Saltzman said.

Nelson said the solution was to ban the imports, continue testing and ultimately remove Chinese drywall.

Removal could cost $100,000 per home, said Randy Noel, the president of Reve Inc., a Louisiana homebuilder.

Witness Richard J. Kampf of Cape Coral, Fla., a retiree suffering from respiratory problems that he said began when he moved into a new $315,000 home with Chinese drywall, was asked how much the house was worth now. He answered, "Zero."

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