Chinese-made drywall, a common interior construction material, is emitting foul gases and ruining household system such as air-conditioners in US homes. Apparently the high level of sulfur in the material is doing all the damage.
Investigations by health authorities are on, and class action lawsuits are being filed to claim damages.
The Florida Health Department said it has received more than 140 homeowner complaints. The class-action lawsuits allege defective drywall has caused problems in at least three states -- Florida, Louisiana and Alabama -- while some attorneys involved claim such drywall may have been used in tens of thousands of U.S. homes.
Homeowners' lawsuits contend the drywall has caused them to suffer health problems such as headaches and sore throats and face huge repair expenses.
The sulfur-based gases emitted by the drywalls smelt of rotten eggs and made life miserable for the inmates. More dangerously, the gases corroded piping and wiring, causing electronics and appliances to fail.
"It's economically devastating, and it's emotionally devastating," said Florida attorney Ervin A. Gonzalez, who filed one of the lawsuits. It would cost a third of an affected home's value to fix the dwelling, Gonzalez said.
"The interior has to be gutted, the homeowners have to continue paying mortgages, and they have to pay for a [temporary] place to live," Gonzalez said.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has been investigating claims in Florida for more than a month, according to commission spokesman Joe Martyak. He would not confirm whether CPSC is checking other states or reveal how many cases it is probing.
The Florida complaints generally involve homes built or renovated in 2005 and 2006, when a building boom and post-hurricane reconstruction caused a U.S. drywall shortage that spurred builders to turn to imports, Martyak said.
The allegations come after a number of recent safety problems with other Chinese exports, ranging from toys to pet food.
Dick and Nancy Nelson, who say the Florida retirement home they bought new in 2006 has Chinese-manufactured drywall, contend all their appliances with copper are failing, according to CNN affiliate WFTS-TV.
"The washing machine, the dryer, the microwave, a refrigerator -- these are all brand-new appliances, and they're breaking down," Nancy Nelson of Palmetto told the Tampa station. The Nelsons are among those who have complained to the state health department.
"My dream has turned into a nightmare," one of the homeowners, Felix Martinez, told WPLG-TV. He said he closed on the home in August 2006.
Two Florida attorneys involved in separate class-action lawsuits, Gonzalez and Jordan Chaikin, said they believe shipping records indicate tens of thousands of residences in the United States, with a good chunk of them in Florida, may have drywall from the manufacturers.
"The breadth of this thing is a lot bigger than people think," said Chaikin of the Parker Waichman Alonso law firm in Bonita Springs. Chaikin said the problem is perhaps more easily recognizable in Florida because humidity exacerbates it.
An Alabama-based homebuilder alleges that Chinese-manufactured drywall in 40 houses it built in 2005 and 2006 -- 32 in Alabama and eight in Florida -- caused corrosion or odor problems. The builder, Mitchell Co., has filed a class-action lawsuit in Florida against certain manufacturers, attorney Steve Nicholas said.
Joerg Schanow, a member of Knauf Gips' board, said in a telephone interview with CNN that the Chinese manufacturers named in the suit are part of Knauf Group, but not controlled by Knauf Gips KG.
"We here in Germany do not manufacture Chinese drywall. [Knauf Gips KG has] never asked companies to manufacture Chinese drywall for us or on our behalf. And there is no relationship at all," Schanow said. "I'm confident we will rebut this."
On its Web site, the company says the Knauf Group operates 150 factories worldwide, including the three Chinese production facilities named in the lawsuit.
One of the Chinese manufacturers named in the suit, Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin (KPT), said in a statement released through U.S. representatives that tests by an expert toxicologist it retained found "no associated health risks with the KPT product." KPT is still investigating whether its product has caused any corrosion, spokeswoman Yeleny Suarez said.
In a separate statement released through KPT's U.S. representatives, lawyers said there is no basis for the other two China-based manufacturers, Knauf Plasterboard Wuhu and Knauf Plasterboard Dongguan, to be part of the lawsuit and the manufacturers "will defend themselves vigorously."