Senior first heard about Chinese drywall in late 2008, when her homeowners' association stuck a newsletter on her door. Amid the usual banalities — don't feed stray cats, keep up on your lawn mowing — the letter casually mentioned the news: Some units might have Chinese drywall.

"I felt like the whole world was collapsing around me," Senior says. "I cried for days. I didn't know where I was going to take my children. I had a baby on the way, and I was just terrified."

A thousand stories like Senior's played out across South Florida between 2003 and 2008 as the housing bubble inflated prices to unprecedented levels. Buyers literally waited in line for a chance to buy new homes and condos, and nobody considered looking in the walls to see where the drywall had been made.

Chinese manufacturers are still exporting drywall, likely with no new safeguards.
C. Stiles
Chinese manufacturers are still exporting drywall, likely with no new safeguards.
New air conditioner coils turn black within months in homes with tainted drywall.
C. Stiles
New air conditioner coils turn black within months in homes with tainted drywall.

Under President George W. Bush, federal mortgage companies Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were encouraged to lend to low-income buyers, and his administration chopped regulations on lenders. Meanwhile, Congress approved $200 million a year for down payments. This led to remarkable growth, particularly in South Florida, where easy credit, rampant speculation, and outright fraud created a superbubble. The median home price in South Florida doubled, from about $155,000 in 2002 to $312,000 just four years later, according to the Census Bureau.

Builders such as Miami-based Lennar Corp. and WCI Communities of Bonita Springs, couldn't slap together new suburbs or towering condos fast enough for investors. Five named storms tore through Florida in 2004, and the repairs that followed further tapped the market for building materials.

The pace of development outstripped the ability of American drywall companies to keep up. Drywall, also called plasterboard, is made from a mixture of gypsum — a malleable, soft mineral — and water. The premade boards are a cheap and convenient way to finish interior walls and ceilings. Nearly all new developments use drywall to construct the walls and ceilings, and with depleted domestic supplies, developers turned to Chinese imports en masse in 2006 and 2007.

Defective Chinese products have not exactly been foreign to American consumers. This decade has seen toys laced with lead, toothpaste with poison, deadly heparin medicine, and killer pet food from China. U.S. Customs and Border Protection says its agents inspected drywall shipments — but only to check for hidden arms or terrorist materials. The Consumer Product Safety Commission had no standards for drywall because it wasn't considered a "consumer product."

Since 2006, upward of 550 million pounds of drywall came into U.S. ports, according to an analysis of shipping records by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Sixty percent came into Florida, or enough drywall to construct about 36,000 homes.

"There's no question in my mind that at least 30,000 houses in Florida have this product," says Jeremy Alters, a Miami-based lawyer working on drywall lawsuits. "We're going to be tallying this up for a long time to come."

The Florida Department of Health says it didn't get word of the brewing problem until June 2008, after Sarasota County raised a warning. And the state didn't contact the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ask for federal help until November 2008.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission recently finished a 51-home study that found a definitive link between Chinese drywall and elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide, a dangerous compound that reeks like rotten eggs and chews through copper like Takeru Kobayashi through a hot dog.

Michael McGeehin, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's environmental health division, told Congress earlier in 2009: "There's no doubt that corrosive material is causing health problems."

For Aiasha Johnson, the two-story townhouse she bought in Deerfield Beach began making her sick not long after she moved in. The 29-year-old special-education teacher with creamy dark skin and fashionable, angular glasses bought the Deerfield Courts townhome for $269,000 in October 2006. Right away, she noticed a smell — like carpet in a new car, but stronger.

The air conditioner died three months after she moved in to the townhome with her new husband, Geoffrey, a data technician. The electric stove followed suit a few months later. Technicians came and fixed the appliances, but by the summer of 2007, the AC broke again. This time, it stayed broken for eight sweltering days. In the heat, the apartment's smell became almost unbearable.

That wasn't all. Her jewelry had started turning black less than a month after she bought it. Fillings rotted out of her teeth. Even the family dog got sick, with mysterious cysts growing on his neck and legs.

Then Johnson began waking up with pouring nosebleeds. Her daughter, Elizabeth, born six months after the family moved in, needed a nebulizer every night to help her breathe. "I'd never heard of Chinese drywall, but it was becoming more and more obvious that something was seriously wrong," she says.

They'd learn soon that Chinese drywall was at fault for their problems. But there's one question that hasn't been answered: Who's to blame?

----------

When our correspondent visited Knauf Tianjin's factory in November and spent time with security guards Liao and Gao, who declined to give their first names, and spoke with workers and nearby residents, it was clear that Knauf was still producing drywall for export and that few if any new safeguards had been put into place.

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