So far, there are few winners among those afflicted by defects in drywall that had been imported from China and used on many housing projects in the U.S. during the building boom.
Lawyers representing plaintiffs and defendants in the crossfire of lawsuits stemming from the drywall’s tendency to release a corrosive, foul-smelling gas – tentatively identified as a reduced-sulfur compound being produced by bacteria in the wallboard – may be the only ones gaining ground.
At least for the time being.
A New York Times story published last week offered highlights of the litigation scuffle underway among homeowners, builders, insurers, and manufacturers. The situation is especially dreary, and in some cases financially ruinous, for the homeowners, whose list of woes attributed to the drywall’s off-gassing include breathing problems, headaches, nosebleeds, and severe corrosion of metal fixtures of almost every type.
To the extent most homeowners don’t have the financial resources to weather a long-running legal dispute, much less pay for replacement of all the drywall and affected electrical equipment in their homes (a process that could cost, on average, from $100,000 to $150,000 per home, the Times notes), their prospects do indeed look bleak.
A partial reprieve for homeowners in limbo?
Customers of some large homebuilders that used the drywall, including Lennar Corporation, may see some relief. Lennar, the Times points out, has set aside $40 million for home repairs, while it tries to collect from its insurance company and sues several Chinese suppliers and American middlemen. But customers of builders who operate on a smaller scale are unlikely to be handed complete wallboard replacements.
There is at least hope of a remedy, though, for the off-gassing itself. As noted in a Builder Online story earlier this month, Sabre Environmental Services, based in Slingerland, New York, developed a system for pumping chlorine gas – which neutralizes sulfur gases by oxidizing them, and also kills organisms that might be producing the gases – that has been used in oil fields to oxidize well-clogging sulfur gases and deployed to sanitize government buildings after the anthrax attacks in 2001.
More recently, as the Builder story points out, Sabre used its system to disinfect homes with mold contamination. Then, in the spring, builders and insurers contacted Sabre about using the system on homes with off-gassing drywall. In tests on afflicted homes in Fort Myers, Florida, the company says, the chlorine dioxide completely deactivated the reduced-sulfur compounds off-gassed by the drywall, and thoroughly disinfected the drywall, wall studs, electrical outlets, and other wall interiors.
“When we treat a house for Chinese drywall, it is fixed,” Karen Cavanagh, COO and general counsel, told Builder.
Before the Sabre system is rolled out on any scale, however, its relative effectiveness needs to pass muster with government officials (the Consumer Products Safety Commission is leading tests designed to determine the sources of the drywall contamination and their environmental effects) and insurers, who need to be convinced it will work. (The gas does completely dissipate and leaves no residue – hence its approval for use after the anthrax attacks.)
Homes that may be treated with the Sabre system have to be completely cleared of personal possessions, since the daylong chlorine dioxide treatment will bleach certain objects. Beyond that expense, the treatment itself would cost about $10 to $15 per square foot, although Sabre says it developed a potentially more-cost-effective method during the tests in Fort Myers, where up to 10 homes at a time where treated with one application.
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