Resolving Chinese Drywall: A Sense of Urgency
Barbara Manis, MD and Ed Light
With Chinese Drywall issues in the early stages of scientific understanding and homeowners demanding immediate answers, we can learn from the handling of similar indoor environmental health issues in the past. Lessons learned both good and bad, from these experiences are important to consider in developing practical, cost-effective solutions in the quickest time frame possible.
Fear v. Fact
Media hype often races ahead of sound science. This is nowhere more obvious than when health is a concern.
- FEAR - Asbestos
- The presence of asbestos-containing materials in schools and institutions was initially considered an occupant health hazard.
- In fact, mesothelioma cases involve only unprotected asbestos installers and demolition workers.
- In fact, buildings with asbestos management programs are now considered safe and comply with statutory requirements.
- FEAR – Mold
- "Toxic Mold" has been associated with a vast array of physical conditions ranging from hemorrhages in the lungs of infants, to brain damage, requiring gutting of partially water-damaged structures under full containment in response.
- In fact, demonstrated health effects of indoor mold growth continue to be limited to atopic individuals experiencing allergic reactions and immuno-compromised patients vulnerable to fungal infections.
- In fact, pro-active moisture management programs, including cost-effective water-damage repairs where needed, have proved successful.
While health risks remain an open question at this time, materials corrosion, potentially causing electrical shock and fire safety hazards are a more immediate issue.
Similar to past indoor environmental issues, Chinese Drywall concerns have been compounded by a wide variety of underlying factors. Already this year, there have been allegations of severe illness, evacuation of several residences and calls to tear-out all suspect building materials and utilities. As a result, the value of residences containing Chinese Drywall appears to be declining.
Federal and State Efforts
Federal hearings were held on May 21, 2009, before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs. Testimony by Lori Saltzman, Director Division of Health Sciences of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), outlined CPSC’s three-pronged investigation. She summarized, “We are engaging in a systematic, multidisciplinary and comprehensive scientific investigation that recognizes the urgency of the problem and the difficult situation facing homeowners who have been affected.” Dr. David Krause, State Toxicologist, Florida Department of Health, summarized initial government research efforts, while EPA and CDC outlined their planned investigations. The National Association of Homebuilders and an impacted homeowner also presented insightful testimony.
Past response to health-based indoor environmental issues has often produced uncoordinated activities, driven by fear and frustration fostered by media misconceptions. The resulting assessment and control efforts, as evidenced in prior urgent public environmental health issues, have proven ineffective and unnecessarily expensive. The demand for immediate answers must be tempered by good science and reasonable public health precautions. Chinese Drywall research underway by the government and private interests will hopefully lead, in the near future, to a better understanding of the basic chemistry. This must be accompanied by concurrent efforts to verify practical assessment tools and effective control measures. Follow the next BHS/BD Blog, which will summarize and critique Federal research plans.