First a Hurricane, then Toxic Drywall: Katrina Survivors Can't Win

The material in question was manufactured in China and may have led to numerous infant deaths.
Is that innocuous-looking piece of drywall really a super duper health hazard? (Photo: The Agency Collection / Getty Images)
Jan 4, 2013· 2 MIN READ
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison Fairbrother has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

Homeowners in Louisiana facing the monumental task of bailing floodwater and removing debris after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 had no idea they would soon have another catastrophe in their homes: toxic Chinese drywall used during the rebuilding process.

Imported to the U.S. during the housing boom in the mid-2000s, Chinese drywall was incorporated into tens of thousands of homes, causing massive structural damage and numerous health problems for homeowners and tenants across the country.

Twelve infants died at an army base in North Carolina in 2011, possibly from inhaling fumes from contaminated drywall. But as of this week, those looking to build or remodel homes can cautiously take up their screw guns. On Tuesday, Congress passed legislation aimed at protecting American consumers from toxic drywall.

MORE: Katrina-Ravaged Neighborhood Reemerges as Largest Solar Housing in Southeast

The bill, sponsored by Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) and others, requires the Consumer Product Safety Commission to establish standards for drywall manufactured or imported for use in U.S. construction. It also requires drywall sheets to be imprinted with the manufacturer’s name and date to encourage accountability. President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law shortly.

“Many Louisiana families were faced with the nightmare of building or repairing their homes with toxic drywall after Hurricane Katrina, and I want to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Sen. Vitter told the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

The contaminated drywall emitted foul odors similar to rotting eggs, caused corrosion to metal components in piping, air conditioning units, and electronics, and was linked to respiratory problems, bloody noses, and headaches.

Indoor air tests conducted by the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that levels of reactive sulfur gases were higher in homes containing imported drywall.

A multi-year investigation by ProPublica and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune found that some builders and suppliers knew early on that drywall being imported from China was toxic, but continued to use it anyway. Further research identified nearly 7,000 homeowners who had been affected by the bad drywall, more than double the figure made public by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the government agency leading the investigation.

The new legislation is welcome news for consumer advocates, but some affected homeowners are less pleased.

Juanita Smith, who purchased a home in Hollymeade, Virginia built with Chinese drywall, saw her home foreclosed on this summer, due to the financial strain of endless repairs. “I have hit rock bottom,” she told the Daily Press.

Although the new legislation contains a provision asking China to pay American families for damages from tainted drywall, Smith and other homeowners told the Daily Press they didn’t believe they would ever see restitution.

Mike Shaw, a founding member of the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) Committee on tainted drywall, says he called for standards to be created for drywall emissions back in 2009. While the legislation passed this week mandates new standards, three years later, questions remain about what these standards will look like.

“Until a standard is created that defines the emissions, and until somebody can explain how this occurred in the first place, it’s really nothing more than a symbolic act,” he told TakePart.

Alison Fairbrother is the director of the nonpartisan Public Trust Project, which investigates and reports on misrepresentations of science by corporations and government. She has written for the Washington Monthly, the Washington Spectator, Grist, and Politics Daily, among others. Alison is based in Washington DC. @adfairbrother |