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Asked if the drywall is still toxic, Gao responds, "Yes, we believe that." According to Liao, most workers suspect there's something inherently wrong with the gypsum mined in Shandong Province.
Another worker, who declined to give his name, says the drywall is regularly exported from Knauf around China, Asia, and Europe. Trucks loaded with the stuff were clearly motoring in and out of the gate all day.
It's unclear if any of the tainted drywall is still reaching U.S. shores. The amount of drywall being imported has dropped significantly now that building permits for new homes have dropped by 25 percent. Border Protection is now inspecting drywall on the way in, but it's also uncertain whether it can detect the problems.
A free-for-all scientific scavenger hunt has begun to pin down exactly what is wrong with Chinese drywall — and more important, who's to blame for it. Even amid all the confusion, a few things are clear: Something is definitely wrong with the plasterboard, and at least some builders and suppliers in Florida knew about it and kept right on using it anyway.
The center of the investigation into the bad drywall has been the Consumer Product Safety Commission, an independent federal agency charged with looking out for consumers. Beginning last January, the agency began hunting down answers.
A federal team came to Florida in March and visited four houses. In June, officials representing the Chinese government accompanied them on tours of houses. In August, the team traveled to China to visit Knauf's factory and the massive LuNeng mine in Shandong Province that supplied the gypsum. Finally, in November, the commission wrapped up an in-depth study of 51 houses around Florida. It found a "strong association" between imported drywall and high levels of dangerous hydrogen sulfide and metal corrosion. But the group said it still doesn't have enough information to say what kind of effect these emissions might have on long-term health — or to say how it should be fixed. The limited results from all of that effort have been beyond frustrating for homeowners with Chinese drywall.
In the meantime, plenty of experts have jumped in with their pet theories on what's causing the problems.Spiderman Mulholland, an oddly named "senior forensic investigator" from Gainesville, says he and his team traveled thousands of miles around Florida in '09 inspecting homes and testing drywall samples. After hundreds of thousands spent on lab work and seven months of 15-hour days at affected homes, Mulholland says his group has made progress.
"We were able to produce fecal coli in the drywall," he says.
That's right: fecal bacteria. According to Mulholland's research, untreated water could have been mixed with gypsum to make the drywall. When the boards were left to fester in the South Florida heat, the sulfur-producing fecal bacteria may have began running amok.
"One theory is that they didn't properly heat the board," Mulholland says. "If that's right, this is a substantial health problem."
It's a compelling theory. But it's one that Mulholland and others warn is just one among many.
Others say the Chinese mixed their gypsum with "fly ash" — the noxious industrial byproducts scraped off the insides of smokestacks. That view was bolstered by an Environmental Protection Agency study that found higher levels of sulfur and strontium.
An L.A. Times investigation, meanwhile, found that Chinese companies often substituted real gypsum with "phosphogypsum" — a radioactive waste that factories left in smoldering piles around Beijing.
The commission has speculated that the LuNeng mine might have naturally contained unusual levels of sulfur.
Until they can agree on the problem, no one wants to say who's to blame.
In the meantime, only the lawyers have taken action. After complaints intensified and media attention ramped up, dozens of lawsuits began flooding into courts in Florida, Virginia, and Louisiana — the three states most affected by the drywall. Owners sued the builders, the importers, the manufacturers, and the distributors. Lennar Corp., the largest Florida builder, filed its own suit in January 2009 against all the others in the supply chain.
Earlier last year, the courts consolidated all of the homeowners' complaints into several class-action lawsuits, which now are on the docket in the Eastern District of Louisiana.
Still, none of the finger-pointing so far has done much to narrow down who is at fault for the mess.
"This is the single biggest catastrophe ever to hit the U.S. housing market," says Jordan Chaikin, a Bonita Springs-based lawyer representing hundreds of victims. "To me, it all points straight at these manufacturers."
The class-action lawsuit lists more than 20 Chinese manufacturers and exporters. New Times contacted a number of those located in Beijing and Tianjin, and all declined requests for interviews.
But the workers' admissions at Knauf's facility in China seem to reflect the general Chinese disdain for American complaints. Although the Chinese industrial committee (called the AQSIQ) has cooperated with the federal inquiry, little progress has come on the international front. And the official Chinese media has largely dismissed the problems.
"According to insiders, the global trade imbalance might be the cause of the 'toxic drywall' issue," the Yidaba, a business publication, wrote in October. "It's hard to argue that the 'toxic drywall' issue does not have anything to do with the selfish calculations of the business circles of the countries in which the drywall issue has occurred."