Daily Archives: April 13, 2009

Toxic Chinese drywall ends up in Katrina survivor homes

Chinese Drywall Katrina

St. Bernard Parish Fire Chief Thomas Stone talks with reporters in the den of his home which is being tested for the effects of suspected sulfur-emitting Chinese drywall in in Chalmette, Friday, April 3, 2009. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

Associated Press | Apr 12, 2009

By CAIN BURDEAU

CHALMETTE, La. (AP) — Thomas Stone and his wife rebuilt after their home was flooded by six feet of water during Hurricane Katrina, never dreaming they would face the agony of tearing it apart all over again.

They tapped Lauren Stone’s 401(k) retirement savings and saved $1,000 by installing Chinese-made drywall throughout their two-story home. Now the Stones are among hundreds of Katrina victims facing another, this time unnatural, disaster

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Sulfur-emitting wallboard from China is wreaking havoc in homes, charring electrical wires, eating away at jewelry, silverware and other valuables, and possibly even sickening families.

“The bathroom upstairs has a corroded shower-head, the door hinges are rusting out,” said 50-year-old Thomas Stone, the longtime fire chief of St. Bernard Parish, outside New Orleans. And then there’s the stench, like rotten eggs, that seems to get worse with the heat and humidity.

“It makes me wish there would be another flood to wash it out,” said his wife Lauren, 49.

Chinese manufacturers flooded the U.S. market with more than 500 million pounds of drywall around the same time Katrina was flooding New Orleans, an Associated Press review of shipping records has found.

The boom in imported China-made building materials peaked in 2006, driven by domestic shortages created by the nationwide construction boom, as well as a series of Gulf Coast hurricanes.

That year, enough wallboard was imported from China to build some 34,000 homes of roughly 2,000 square feet each, according to the AP’s analysis and estimates supplied by the nationwide drywall supplier United States Gypsum. But experts and advocates say many homes may have been built with a mixture of Chinese and domestic drywall — which could push the number of affected homes to 100,000 or more, by some estimates.

The drywall apparently causes a chemical reaction that gives off the rotten-egg stench and corrodes metal. Researchers do not know yet what causes it, but possible culprits include fumigants sprayed on the drywall and material inside it. The Chinese drywall is also made with a coal byproduct called fly ash that is less refined than the form used by U.S. drywall makers.

The U.S. Product Consumer Safety Commission and a number of states are investigating the extent of the problem, what’s causing it, and whether it poses serious health risks. But it could be years before the full extent of the problem is known.

Meanwhile, the moist climate of the South has meant the impact is being felt here first — at least 350 people in Louisiana have already complained to the state health department in yet another unexpected twist for hurricane victims who have lived through more than three years of hardship.

“We’ve been through the storms, we heard about the formaldehyde,” Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals spokesman Renne Milligan said, referring to a previous housing nightmare in which tests showed elevated levels of formaldehyde in hundreds of FEMA-issued trailers.

“Some of our residents are still living through that, and now we’re talking about this drywall,” Milligan said.

Governors in Louisiana and Florida are asking for federal assistance, and members of Congress are calling for a recall and a ban on future imports.

Like hundreds of other homeowners from Florida to Texas, the Stones have signed on to a class-action lawsuit directed against the manufacturers, suppliers and builders of the drywall. The defendants in the Louisiana cases include Knauf Gips KG, Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co., Taishan Gypsum Co., L&W Supply Corp. and USG Corp., a major U.S. drywall supplier.

“What we’re trying to do is get to the bottom of what is precisely going on,” said Ken Haldin, a spokesman for Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin.

The lawsuits contend the Chinese drywall is emitting sulfur, methane and other volatile organic chemical compounds that are ruining plaintiffs’ homes and harming their health.

Some of the companies told AP they are looking into the complaints, but downplayed the possibility of health risks.

The Chinese ministries of commerce, construction and industry and the Administration of Quality Supervision Inspection and Quarantine did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the AP, although Chinese media have reported that AQSIQ, which enforces product quality standards, was investigating.

No U.S. agency regulates the chemical compounds used in imported drywall.

Attorney Daniel Becnel has filed about 15 lawsuits in federal court in New Orleans on behalf of hundreds of homeowners.

“And we’re getting more in every single day,” he said. “People are just distraught.”

Mississippi attorney Steve Mullins has also joined the cadre of court actions.

“Bloody noses, headaches, respiratory infections,” Mullins said, ticking off the list of health problems reported by his clients. “Over and over like a broken record.”

“But let’s ignore the personal injury aspect for a moment,” he added. “You know what, this stuff’s got to come out anyway.”

He said his research indicates the problem could exist in hundreds of thousands of homes nationwide, a conclusion echoed by other experts.

“I smell a government bailout,” he said.

David Sides, manager of River City Materials, a drywall supplier based in Jefferson, La., remembers when the Chinese product began saturating the U.S. market.

“Florida got hit with four hurricanes and that’s what started the importing from overseas,” said Sides, who says his company did not sell the tainted drywall. “So many people purchased board from overseas. So many people tried to cash in on shortages here.”

Mary Haindel’s home near Lake Pontchartrain was destroyed by Katrina’s floodwaters, so she bought a new, $320,000 town-home in an area known as the North Shore, where many hurricane victims relocated. Soon, the coils on her air conditioning system went out, and copper slowly turned black — telltale signs that the tainted wallboard was used.

Her neighbors noticed similar problems and many of them are now suing.

Haindel, a 45-year-old real estate agent and jewelry appraiser, moved out. She is now renting a condominium and says it will be difficult to sell the home.

“As I was leaving, I noticed downstairs that a stainless-steel chandelier I have is turning black,” she said. “You can’t live in it. Your lungs get congested. Would you stay in a house eating pipes?”

The town home’s builder, Leroy Laporte of Southern Star Construction Inc., declined to comment.

“It’s Katrina all over again,” Haindel said. “It was an immediate: You got to go, you pick up, and you leave.”

And like Katrina, she feels the government has been too slow to respond.

“I don’t see them protecting us at all,” she said. “I don’t know what’s right or wrong anymore.”

Associated Press Writers Brian Skoloff in West Palm Beach, Fla., and Joe MCDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.

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Russian lawmakers vote to keep Soviet-era red stars on planes

mig-15

A Soviet-era MiG-15 in flight. Photo Mark Von Raesfeld

Vladimir Putin sought to resurrect Soviet symbols as part of his efforts to revive the nation’s military power

Associated Press | Apr 9, 2009

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian lawmakers on Wednesday reversed their earlier decision to have Soviet-era red stars on military aircraft repainted in three colors of the national flag.

The Kremlin-controlled lower house of parliament voted 408-0 with one abstention to keep the five-pointed stars red and only add stripes in the national colors around their contour.

The move reverses the preliminary approval in December of a bill that called for repainting the stars in red, white and blue.

The ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Sergei Shishkarev, the chief of parliament’s transport committee, as saying that the original measure had drawn public protests.

“People feared … depriving Russians of a symbol of their great victories,” Shishkarev was quoted as saying.

Red stars have adorned the nation’s military aircraft since the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and are a powerful symbol. The Defense Ministry’s daily newspaper is named Krasnaya Zvezda, Russian for Red Star.

During his eight-year presidency, Vladimir Putin sought to resurrect Soviet symbols as part of his efforts to revive the nation’s military power and global prestige. On his initiative, Russia restored the old Soviet national anthem — albeit with new lyrics. Putin continues to play the dominant role in the nation’s politics as the powerful prime minister.

Toxic Chinese drywall poses potential risks

Associated Press | Apr 11, 2009

By BRIAN SKOLOFF and CAIN BURDEAU

PARKLAND, Fla. (AP) — At the height of the U.S. housing boom, when building materials were in short supply, American construction companies used millions of pounds of Chinese-made drywall because it was abundant and cheap.

Now that decision is haunting hundreds of homeowners and apartment dwellers who are concerned that the wallboard gives off fumes that can corrode copper pipes, blacken jewelry and silverware, and possibly sicken people.

Shipping records reviewed by The Associated Press indicate that imports of potentially tainted Chinese building materials exceeded 500 million pounds during a four-year period of soaring home prices. The drywall may have been used in more than 100,000 homes, according to some estimates, including houses rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina.

“This is a traumatic problem of extraordinary proportions,” said U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat who introduced a bill in the House calling for a temporary ban on the Chinese-made imports until more is known about their chemical makeup. Similar legislation has been proposed in the Senate.

The drywall apparently causes a chemical reaction that gives off a rotten-egg stench, which grows worse with heat and humidity.

Researchers do not know yet what causes the reaction, but possible culprits include fumigants sprayed on the drywall and material inside it. The Chinese drywall is also made with a coal byproduct called fly ash that is less refined than the form used by U.S. drywall makers.

Dozens of homeowners in the Southeast have sued builders, suppliers and manufacturers, claiming the very walls around them are emitting smelly sulfur compounds that are poisoning their families and rendering their homes uninhabitable.

“It’s like your hopes and dreams are just gone,” said Mary Ann Schultheis, who has suffered burning eyes, sinus headaches, and a general heaviness in her chest since moving into her brand-new, 4,000-square foot house in this tidy South Florida suburb a few years ago.

She has few options. Her builder is in bankruptcy, the government is not helping and her lender will not give her a break.

“I’m just going to cry,” she said. “We don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Builders have filed their own lawsuits against suppliers and manufacturers, claiming they unknowingly used the bad building materials.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is investigating, as are health departments in Virginia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Florida and Washington state.

Companies that produced some of the wallboard said they are looking into the complaints, but downplayed the possibility of health risks.

“What we’re trying to do is get to the bottom of what is precisely going on,” said Ken Haldin, a spokesman for Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin, a Chinese company named in many of the lawsuits.

The Chinese ministries of commerce, construction and industry and the Administration of Quality Supervision Inspection and Quarantine did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Chinese news reports have said AQSIQ, which enforces product quality standards, was investigating the complaints but people in the agency’s press office said they could not confirm that.

Meanwhile, governors in Louisiana and Florida are asking for federal assistance, and experts say the problem is only now beginning to surface.

“Based on the amount of material that came in, it’s possible that just in one year, 100,000 residences could be involved,” said Michael Foreman, who owns a construction consulting firm. The company has performed tests on some 200 homes in the Sarasota area and has been tracking shipments of the drywall.

Federal authorities say they are investigating just how much of the wallboard was imported. Shipping records analyzed by the AP show that more than 540 million pounds of plasterboard — which includes both drywall and ceiling tile panels — was imported from China between 2004 and 2008, although it’s unclear whether all of that material was problematic or only certain batches.

Most of it came into the country in 2006, following a series of Gulf Coast hurricanes and a domestic shortage brought on by the national housing boom.

The Chinese board was also cheaper. One homeowner told AP he saved $1,000 by building his house with it instead of a domestic product.

In 2006, enough wallboard was imported from China to build some 34,000 homes of roughly 2,000 square feet each, according to AP’s analysis of the shipping records and estimates supplied by the nationwide drywall supplier United States Gypsum.

Experts and advocates say many homes may have been built with a mixture of Chinese and domestic drywall, potentially raising the number of affected homes much higher.

So far, the problem appears to be concentrated in the Southeast, which blossomed with new construction during the housing boom and where the damp climate appears to cause the gypsum in the building material to degrade more quickly. In Florida alone, more than 35,000 homes may contain the product, experts said.

In Louisiana, the state health department has received complaints from at least 350 people in just a few weeks. Many of the affected homeowners rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina only to face the prospect of tearing down their houses and rebuilding again.

In another cruel twist, some of the very communities that have been hit hardest by the collapse of the housing market and skyrocketing foreclosure rates are now at the epicenter of the drywall problem.

Foreman warns of a “sleeping beast” in the thousands of bank-owned condos and houses across the country, with no one in them to complain.

Outside the South, it’s harder to pinpoint the number of affected homes. And in drier climates such as California and Nevada, it may be years before homeowners begin to see — and smell — what may be lurking inside their walls.

The drywall furor is the latest in a series of scares over potentially toxic imports from China. In 2007, Chinese authorities ratcheted up inspections and tightened restrictions on exports after manufacturers were found to have exported tainted cough syrup, toxic pet food and toys decorated with lead paint.

Scientists hope to understand the problem by studying the chemicals in the board. Drywall consists of wide, flat boards used to cover walls. It is often made from gypsum, a common mineral that can be mined or manufactured from the byproducts of coal-fired power plants.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuits, as well as U.S. wallboard manufacturers, say the tainted drywall was made with fly ash, a residue of coal combustion more commonly used in concrete mixtures.

Fly ash can be gathered before it ever reaches the smokestack, where technology is used to remove sulfur dioxide from the emissions. The process of “scrubbing” the smokestack emissions creates calcium sulfate, or gypsum, which can then used to make wallboard, experts say.

Haldin, the Knaupf Tianjin spokesman, says some domestic drywall is also made from the less-refined fly ash.

But Michael Gardner, executive director of the U.S. Gypsum Association, said American manufacturers gather the gypsum from the smokestacks after the scrubbing, which produces a cleaner product.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has dispatched teams of toxicologists, electrical engineers and other experts to Florida to study the phenomenon. The commission is also working with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine whether there is a health hazard.

A Florida Department of Health analysis found the Chinese drywall emits “volatile sulfur compounds,” and contains traces of strontium sulfide, which can produce the rotten-egg odor and reacts with air to corrode metals and wires.

But the agency says on its Web site that it “has not identified data suggesting an imminent or chronic health hazard at this time.”

“We’re continuing to test,” said Susan Smith, a spokeswoman for the department, which has logged 230 complaints from homeowners.

Dr. Patricia Williams, a University of New Orleans toxicologist hired by a Louisiana law firm that represents plaintiffs in some of the cases, said she has identified highly toxic compounds in the drywall, including hydrogen sulfide, sulfuric acid, sulfur dioxide and carbon disulfide.

Prolonged exposure to the compounds, especially high levels of carbon disulfide, can cause breathing problems, chest pains and even death; and can affect the nervous system, according to the CDC.

“It is absolutely shocking what is happening,” Williams said.

Dr. Phillip Goad, a toxicologist hired by Knaupf Plasterboard Tianjin, sampled drywall from 25 homes, some that contained the company’s wallboard and some that did not.

“The studies we have performed to date have identified very low levels of naturally occurring compounds,” Goad said. “The levels we have detected do not present a public health concern. The chemicals are naturally occurring. They’re produced in ocean water, in salt marsh air, in estuaries.”

But those who are living with it are convinced that something is making them sick, including dozens of homeowners in a single subdivision in Parkland, about 50 miles north of Miami. They are now faced with a daunting choice: Tear down and rebuild, or move out and be stuck with a mortgage and a home they cannot sell.

“We are particularly concerned about the safety and well-being of our children,” said Holly Krulik, who lives down the street from Mary Ann Schultheis.

She and her husband, Doug, are suffering sinus problems and respiratory ailments, and their young daughter has repeated nose bleeds.

“If a shiny copper coil can turn absolutely black within a matter of months, it certainly can’t be good for human beings,” Krulik said.

Neighbor John Willis is moving out, even though he can hardly afford to walk away from a house he’s owned for just three years. He cries as he speaks of his 3-year-old son’s respiratory infection, which eventually required surgery.

“They basically took out a substance that looked like rubber cement out of my 3-year-old son’s sinuses,” he said. “My wife and I are now faced with the choice between our children’s health and our financial health. My children are always going to win on that.”

The subdivision’s builder, WCI Communities, is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy restructuring and can do little more than log complaints, said spokeswoman Connie Boyd.

The federal government does not regulate the chemical ingredients of imported drywall.

Plasterboard Tianjin said it has been making drywall for 10 years in accordance with U.S. and international standards.

Another Chinese company facing lawsuits, Taishan Gypsum Ltd., also insists that it meets all U.S. standards.

Determining what is causing the problems could take months. Researchers will try to recreate in a lab the conditions that caused the sulfur compounds normally found in drywall to give off noxious gases.

Meanwhile, people like Lisa Sich, 43, are left with more questions than answers. Sich has not felt well since moving into the Henderson, Nev., apartment she rents less than a year ago, and her silverware quickly tarnished.

“I can hear myself wheezing,” said Sich, who is having environmental experts test the apartment, built in 2007. “My eyes are constantly itchy, extreme fatigue.”

And while Sich is not even certain she’s got the bad wallboard, she has not felt like herself in months. She’s missed five weeks of work just since Thanksgiving.

“I’m just tired all the time,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Associated Press Writer Joe McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report. Burdeau reported from New Orleans.

Ex-military bouncers hired by schools for ‘crowd control’

bouncers_1382986c

Photo: Getty Images

Nightclub bouncers, former soldiers and ex-policemen are being hired by schools to provide “crowd control” in classrooms, according to teachers.

Telegraph | Apr 12, 2009

By Graeme Paton, Education Editor

They are being employed as teaching assistants to cover permanent staff when they are off sick, it was claimed.

The National Union of Teachers – Britain’s biggest classroom union – said schools were turning to people with no teaching experience just because they were “stern and loud”.

It comes amid growing concerns over a breakdown in school discipline with claims last week that as many as one in four teachers has been a victim of violent pupils in the last year.

A Government report being published on Wednesday will recommend that schools should make more use of “withdrawal rooms” – likened to solitary confinement ‘coolers’ by some – to control disruptive children.

At the NUT’s annual conference on Sunday it emerged that one headteacher had permanently hired two bouncers from an employment agency as “cover supervisors” to take classes when regular teachers were absent.

They were taken on by a comprehensive in north London for around £20,000 each – half the cost of fully qualified supply staff. One of the bouncers later left after disciplinary action was taken when he fell out with other teachers, it was claimed.

Speaking at the conference, Andrew Baisley, a teacher from Camden, said other schools were advertising for classroom assistants with military and police backgrounds.

“It is about crowd control and childminding,” he said. “If you are stern and loud, that’s what’s necessary to do the job.”

He added: “The problem is we need someone who’s trained with children, to be able to interact with children. If someone is away, you don’t want any teacher, you want a teacher from that particular subject so they can help them children with their work, so that the whole hour isn’t a complete waste of time.”

Mr Baisley refused to name the school involved but one employment agency in Birmingham – called Aspire People – has advertised for people who are “an ex-marine, prison officer, bouncer, policeman, fireman, sportsman [or] actor” to “get involved in a school environment and control the kids in schools throughout the Midlands”.

A state school in Tower Hamlets, east London, also hired a teacher with experience as a nightclub bouncer as its new behavioural expert.

Schools are officially banned from leaving normal teaching assistants in charge of lessons, but the NUT claim this is widely ignored. At the union’s annual conference in Cardiff, activists condemned the move as “education on the cheap”.

It came as ministers prepared to publish new guidance on Wednesday to help schools control bad behaviour in the classroom.

The report – by Sir Alan Steer, head of Seven Kings High School, Ilford – will call for more schools to open isolation units to tackle “low level disruption, where it is preventing the whole class from learning”.

Under plans which are already used in some schools, children are placed in rooms for hours at a time without other pupils or proper teaching to punish bad behaviour.

It will also recommend further use of new powers to search pupils for weapons and the imposition of “parenting contracts” to make mothers and fathers accountable for children’s bad behaviour.

Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, said: “It is unacceptable for a pupil to disrupt the learning and teaching of an entire class. Pupils need to know that when certain boundaries are crossed they will have to bear the consequences, that when they disrupt their classmate’s learning they will be held accountable – withdrawal rooms are one way of doing this which I have seen for myself and discussed with head teachers.”