Gauging Defective Drywall's Effects In High-Heat Environments

Fire companies throughout the U.S., Canada and beyond should be aware of the existence of a new product being exported from China that may present significant risk and health exposure issues for firefighters. A cheap form of drywall that has been recently installed in new homes has been found to produce dangerous gases that have profoundly concerning effects on both humans and metals within these buildings. According to numerous web postings from sources including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Consumer Product Safety Commission, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), this wallboard emits a variety of gases, such as strontium sulfide and elemental sulfur. Further tests have determined that in environments containing high relative humidity or heat, gases such as hydrogen sulfide, carbonyl sulfide and carbon disulfide are given off, all of which can cause copper (and other metal) corrosion in homes and possibly present a health hazard. Many people have reported feeling ill effects from being exposed to this product.

One Florida couple reported that their air conditioner failed four times and silver plates blackened, as did light fixtures. The TV and satellite receivers stopped working. Consumers generally smell a foul sulfur-like odor. There are apparently no safety standards regulating gypsum-based building products such as drywall. Although the Chinese manufacturers, along with their foreign import/export firms insist that there is no danger to humans or metals within a dwelling, numerous reports have come out about people experiencing nose bleeds, nausea, breathing problems, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, insomnia, eye irritations and allergy-type reactions.

All houses affected have shown a common symptom: blackened, scorched wiring behind switch plates and wall plugs. One possibility presented states that the wallboard was made using gypsum that was first used in slurry containing carcinogens to de-sulfur coal. Chemicals remaining in the wallboard are sufficiently toxic that as few as three sheets of drywall may be enough to contaminate a home to the point it may require bulldozing, says one watchdog agency.

The problem initially appeared at the height of the recent huge housing boom, when building materials were in short supply and North American construction companies bought millions of pounds of it because it was abundant and cheap. Now that decision is beginning to haunt thousands of homeowners and apartment dwellers. Shipping records reviewed by The Associated Press indicate that imports of potentially tainted Chinese building materials exceeded 500 million pounds during a four-year period of soaring home prices. The drywall may have been used in more than 100,000 homes, including houses rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina. Many affected homeowners who rebuilt after the storm now face the prospect of tearing down their houses and rebuilding again.

In another cruel twist, some of the very communities that have been hit hardest by the collapse of the housing market and skyrocketing foreclosure rates are now at the epicenter of the drywall problem. One construction consultant warns of a "sleeping beast" in the thousands of empty bank-owned condominiums and houses across the U.S., with no one in them to complain.

The greatest concentration of complaints have come mainly from the southeastern U.S. — which blossomed with new construction during the housing boom and where the damp climate appears to cause the gypsum in the building material to degrade more quickly. In Florida alone, more than 35,000 homes may contain the product.

The drywall apparently causes a chemical reaction that gives off a rotten-egg stench, which as noted, grows considerably worse with heat and humidity. Researchers do not know yet what causes the reaction, but possible culprits include fumigants sprayed on drywall and material inside it.

For the fire service, the question now must be raised as to what effects these gases being given off in this defective wallboard have on first responders in carrying out their duty of protecting the public. Fire departments must be keenly aware of the threat regarding the reports of "scorched wiring" and "failing machinery and electronics." The issue must be tabled as to how many possible fires over the course of time may break out due to the corrosive gases attacking electrical wiring. Also, the concern must also be raised as to what effects this corrosive action might have on metal-based structural components, such as lightweight metal construction, including metal wall studs and ceiling and roof joists. The joint welds must be an area to be concerned with, since if the welds corrode and fail, these critical connection points may cause premature localized or catastrophic structural failure. What effect will this rapid degradation have on metal gusset plates holding wood roof and floor trusses together?

Stepping away from the structural issues, an equally unsettling concern would be what does this gas do to piping, including both sprinkler piping and gas lines? The latter potentially lends itself to mass-casualty events if the elbows and connections of this thick piping were to be compromised and natural gas or propane be released — especially in void spaces where volatile pockets of highly flammable gas can accumulate unbeknownst to building occupants. What about the metal containment chambers of ionization smoke detectors containing radioactive isotopes?

Given the serious nature this newfound threat poses to the fire service (and the public), a forum must be initiated now rather than later — after this sub-grade building product begins taking lives and further increases the ever-present risk exposure to first responders.

(Sources: AP Impact — "Chinese drywall poses potential risks"; Tampa Bay Business Journal; InjuryBoard.com)

CURTIS S.D. MASSEY is president of Massey Enterprises Inc., the world's leading disaster-planning firm. Massey Disaster/Pre-Fire Plans protect the vast majority of the tallest and highest-profile buildings in North America. He also teaches an advanced course on High-Rise Fire Department Emergency Operations to major city fire departments throughout the U.S. and Canada. Massey also regularly writes articles regarding "new-age" technology that impacts firefighter safety.

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