Toxic Trade 2010: Drywall

James Vallette | April 08, 2010 | Materials

This blog post, originally shared in the Pharos Signal, includes information about parts of Pharos that are no longer available. Please use it for historical reference and for the other useful information it contains.

A couple decades ago, I helped to organize a campaign to stop the export of hazardous waste from the industrialized North to the rest of the world. Ultimately, our work resulted in a ban on many forms of such toxic trade.

It is shocking to see the same tricks that waste traders played on impoverished communities being reenacted in my home country.

Back then, companies labeled toxic ash as "construction materials" and "fertilizer," and dumped the waste from the shores of Haiti to the fields of Bangladesh. More recently, a suit filed by Louisiana Attorney General James D."Buddy" Caldwell asserts corporate predators rushed in after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and dumped Chinese fly ash -- in the form of wallboards used to repair storm-ravaged homes.

The State of Louisiana's suit names 23 defendants. Chief among them: Knauf International, the Germany-based building material giant. Knauf operates three wallboard plants in China that were the main sources of drywall imported into Gulf Coast states in 2006 and 2007.

"Seeking to profit from the desperation of Louisianans harmed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Knauf (USA) urged Interior Exterior [a local distributor] to purchase Chinese drywall from Knauf," the complaint states.

The Attorney General alleges specific actions by Knauf and a related major building material corporation, United States Gypsum (USG), to push toxic drywall from China into the U.S. marketplace. This complaint also describes the role of a Chinese government-run company, Beijing New Building Materials, which is the third largest wallboard company in the world.

But it is clear that a lot of responsibility lies within Western transnational corporate offices. At least 78 percent of the drywall imported from China in 2006 came from Knauf's China operations, according to US Customs data.

The complaint states that Knauf's international offices "exercised strict control" over the three plants in China, and coordinated shipments of the wallboard into the U.S. The shipments were imported by USG, in which Knauf "also held a substantial equity interest.

"In pursuit of profit, Defendants proactively pushed their defective Chinese drywall into Louisiana in massive quantities, knowing that domestic supplies were very low and that Louisiana desperately needed drywall to commence its rebuilding efforts. Defendants' drywall is and was inherently defective and not suitable for its intended use. It is and was defective, noxious, and toxic, and will remain so for a long but unknown span of years."

The AG alleges that under Knauf's control, the Chinese wallboard plants produced drywall made with fly ash, from coal-fired power plants -- a material which is not used in wallboard manufactured in North America. This is a much different chemical composition than Flue Gas Desulphurization waste, also called synthetic gypsum, which is a common substitute for natural (mined) gypsum in drywall.

"[T]he Defendants knew or should have known that their use of substandard materials and their shoddy manufacturing and inadequate or non-existent quality-control processes would result in defective, noxious, and toxic drywall which emits a variety of dangerous chemicals," alleges the AG, including formaldehyde, hydrogen sulfide and carbonyl sulfide.

The AG's complaint also notes the presence of naphthalene sulfonate additives, which I discussed in last week's Signal. "Drywall may consist of two other materials with sulfur content: alkyl ethoxy sulfates as foaming agents, and lignin or naphthalene sulfonates as dispersing agents," it states.

For their parts, Knauf's U.S. operations, and US Gypsum, have tried to distance themselves from this scandal.

Last March, Knauf Insulation North America issued an Orwellian press release, saying that it needed to "set the record straight." Knauf Insulation North America President Bob Claxton noted the spate of news reports about drywall used in Florida. "Unfortunately, many of the reports identify 'Knauf' rather than Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin as one of the sources of the products imported from China. This has led to confusion in the marketplace... Knauf Insulation is a business unit that operates independently from any other Knauf business, including Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin. Knauf Insulation in North America and our products are not associated with the drywall in question."

However, Knauf Insulation GmbH and Knauf (USA) are now defendants in the State of Louisiana suit.

While these transnational corporations deny responsibility, they are leaving thousands of homeowners to deal with the health impacts and the huge costs of remediation. The Consumer Products Safety Commission last week advised that "consumers remove all possible problem drywall from their homes, and replace electrical components and wiring, gas service piping, fire suppression sprinkler systems, smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms. Taking these steps should help eliminate both the source of the problem drywall and corrosion-damaged components that might cause a safety problem in the home."

The scourge of hurricanes in the mid-2000s presaged a secondary disaster created by man, not nature. From toxic trailers, to toxic drywall, Gulf Coast residents have borne the brunt of commerce's basest instincts.

As AG Caldwell's complaint says, "those rebuilt homes are essentially worthless and uninhabitable unless they are remediated again.... the Defendants have been unjustly enriched."  And, the homeowners have been unjustly sickened.  Over 3,000 people have complained of health impacts ranging from asthma attacks to heart disease.

Our Pharos building materials evaluation system now includes drywall made in China. We hope this information will help users understand the unique hazards posed by these industrial waste byproducts.