Attack of the Chinese Drywall

Homeowners look for someone to blame for the material that's wrecking houses.

It was February 22, and Lawrence Riesz finally had an idea about how to diagnose all the mysterious problems in his home. Since he and his wife bought the place in Parkland two years ago, the refrigerator had quit inexplicably. Then the dryer. Then the intercom. And three TVs had failed. He thought it might be electrical, but experts he brought in offered no explanation.

Then there were the health issues. Riesz and his wife, Jennifer Schnee, an ob-gyn, and two of their three children had all suffered from sinus infections. Two of the kids — a 2-year-old and 4-year-old — had developed asthma. He knew it could all be normal colds, and asthma runs in the family, but he couldn't help thinking that what was corroding his appliances could be doing the same to his loved ones.

It was late, perhaps midnight, when Riesz, who wears his salt-and-pepper hair at shoulder length, came up with his idea. Riesz is an emergency-room doctor at Broward General, so he used the same logic he applies to his patients. He needed to get inside his walls to figure out what was wrong.

He removed the air conditioning vents hoping he could look inside, but none gave him access inside the walls. Then he remembered the broken intercom. He removed the four screws holding the TV-tray-size intercom to the wall and let it hang from its corroded wiring. The space was too small to peek in, so Riesz grabbed his web cam. Slowly, he lowered the video camera by using the cord that connects it to his laptop. About a foot down, behind a tangle of blue speaker wires, he saw words come into focus:

Tianjin, China.

He ran upstairs to tell his wife. "Holy crap, I just saw it! We have Chinese drywall!"

Back then, homeowners were just figuring out that Chinese drywall installed in as many as 100,000 houses nationwide produces high levels of sulfur and, some believe, releases toxic chemicals into the air. The gases corrode wiring and pipes and, more important, might cause home­owners long-term health problems.

The fact that China was the source of the defective drywall wasn't surprising, considering the country's history of exporting toys containing lead paint. But what makes the drywall worse is that there's no recall that will fix it short of tearing homes down to the studs to remove the potentially hazardous walls.

Riesz and Schnee filed a lawsuit March 10 against builder WCI and the company that supplied the contractor with the drywall from China. But like many whose homes have Chinese drywall — and there are an estimated 35,000 in Florida — the couple might never get anyone to repair the house. Most companies responsible have refused to acknowledge the problems, while others, like WCI, have filed for bankruptcy.

And we might never know who's responsible. Legal technicalities make it almost impossible for homeowners to figure out if suppliers sold the Chinese drywall and builders installed it knowing the stuff was potentially harmful.

"Little by little, people are getting little bits of information about how bad this stuff might be," says Allison Grant, the Boca Raton lawyer who helped uncover the problem with her website chinesedrywall.com. "But the truth is, we may never find out who knew in advance of all of this."

The drywall from China showed up during the height of the building boom in 2005 or earlier, when suppliers ran out of U.S.-made building supplies. Home­owners began learning the Chinese drywall is defective this past November, when websites such as Grant's popped up. Some have speculated that an ingredient in the gypsum used to manufacture drywall could produce toxic chemicals when exposed to humidity.

Homeowners have begun blaming the Chinese drywall for a growing list of health problems. Mary Ann Schultheis, for instance, says she suffers from sinus headaches, blurred vision, and now bronchitis. She worries it's because of the Chinese drywall in her home in Banyan Isles. Schultheis, age 59, and husband Gary used their retirement savings to buy the house and now have no money to move. "I'm going to lose everything on this place," Schultheis says. "All my life savings, every penny we had, is in this house. We're just going to walk away?"

No studies have been completed to determine if Chinese drywall is at fault. But Patricia Williams, a toxicologist and associate professor at the University of New Orleans, is studying about 50 people living in homes with Chinese drywall. Her findings won't be available until June, but she tells New Times that homeowners have reported suffering from runny eyes, bloody noses, sinus problems, and, most troubling, "acne-like rashes" that could be signs that dangerous compounds are in the air.

"You're reading everywhere about sulfur, but there are many other things I'm studying in the drywall that are very toxic," Williams says. She'll present findings at a conference June 4 and 5 in Orlando for lawyers involved in Chinese litigation cases.

Builders are among those calling for independent testing. But even before those results are known, some contractors, including giant homebuilder Lennar Corp. of Miami, have offered to move homeowners into temporary housing and replace the Chinese drywall.

Lennar also filed a lawsuit in January against 25 companies accused of making, importing, and distributing Chinese drywall. Among them is Miami-based Banner Supply Co., which is accused of distributing a majority of the Chinese drywall in South Florida. Banner Supply owner Jack Landers declined to comment. "We're still in litigation and still investigating the matter," Landers said from his home in Fort Lauderdale.

Homeowners have also begun filing suit, and attorneys across the nation want the federal court system to set up a class-action lawsuit against developers and suppliers. Among the lawsuits is one filed March 23 by four Miami homeowners against Lennar and its drywall suppliers. The suit claims the drywall creates "noxious, rotten egg-like odors," causes damage and corrosion to the home, and has "dangerous health consequences" including respiratory and sinus problems.

Don Russo, the Miami attorney who filed the suit, has joined the calls to have state and federal health officials study Chinese drywall. Such research could help homeowners prove problems stem from their defective walls.

Government studies could also help figure out if builders such as Lennar and suppliers including Banner knew in advance that Chinese drywall was defective. That's not a conclusion that's likely to come out of the lawsuits. If it turns out Lennar and others knew the drywall was defective, insurance companies would deem it fraud and no longer cover the loss. So attorneys suing the developers and suppliers will avoid asking questions.

Indeed, Russo acknowledges it's not something he'll ask in his suit against Lennar and the suppliers. But he says he doesn't believe the companies installed it knowing it would lead to these problems. "They may have had an idea that it corrodes metal, but I doubt they knew the full extent of it," Russo says. However, he acknowledges the suppliers must have known something was wrong. "There's no way, especially in a warehouse full of it, that they couldn't know. You would think that evidence would be there."

Lennar was perhaps the first builder to offer to fix homes with Chinese drywall, but the deal comes with a catch. The company, among the nation's largest homebuilders, requires homeowners to sign a six-page agreement, obtained by New Times, promising that the homeowners will be put up in comparable housing while costly repairs are finished. However, in exchange, homeowners must promise they won't sue, even if later they develop long-term health problems.

Things are worse for homeowners who bought WCI houses. With the company in bankruptcy, WCI has no money for homeowners to go after. Entire WCI communities, such as Parkland Estates and Banyan Isles, might end up with hundreds of homeowners simply walking away from their sick houses.

Riesz and Schnee recently withdrew their suit against WCI, knowing it's impossible to get money from a company that doesn't have any. They're continuing the lawsuit against Chinese drywall manufacturer Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin. But they know it'll be difficult to get a foreign company to pay for repairs.

Meanwhile, they're trying to figure out how long to stick it out in the 5,000-square-foot home they bought for $1.5 million just two years ago. They recently had to replace the air conditioner, but more important is whether what's causing the corrosion is making the family sick.

Schnee actually went into labor the night Reisz told her about finding the Chinese drywall. Now she's worried about whether her home is hurting her 2-month-old.

"I could live with the expense of replacing the appliances. I could live with the odor we get in here sometimes," Schnee says. "I could live with all those things. But not if I know it harms my kids."

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