Skip to Content

Chinese Drywall

So-called Chinese drywall refers to a product imported from China to be used in the construction of walls and ceilings of homes and other buildings. The generic product, also known as wallboard, gypsum board and plasterboard, goes by various trade names such as Sheetrock® and has been used extensively in both residential and commercial construction. During the housing boom earlier this decade, and in particular after Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005, U.S. manufacturers had trouble keeping up with demand. As a result of apparent defects in the manufacture of this material in China, there are numerous pending class action lawsuits, construction litigation, and potential human health concerns for owners and occupants of affected buildings.

What is Drywall?

Drywall is a common building material typically made of a layer of gypsum plaster pressed between two thick sheets of paper, then kiln dried. The product is used globally for the finish construction of interior walls and ceilings.

Drywall manufactured in China was reportedly imported between 2003 and 2007, with some reports indicating even as early as 2001 and into 2008. It is unclear how many homes are affected. The Associated Press reported that over 500 million pounds were imported. Estimates of the number of homes, condominiums and multifamily buildings that used such drywall have ranged from 60,000 to 200,000. Most identified cases have been in the Southeastern United States, although the use of this material is believed to have been more widespread.

What is the Difference Between Drywall Manufactured in China and the U.S.?

In response to consumer complaints (over 600 at last count since the end of 2008), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) performed a limited analysis of two samples imported from China and six samples of domestic manufacture purchased from local stores in New Jersey. They found that:

  • Sulfur was detected in the Chinese product in amounts ranging from 83–119 parts per million, whereas none was detected in the domestic products.
  • Strontium was detected in the Chinese product in amounts two to ten times that detected in the domestic products.

In addition, two organic compounds associated with acrylic paints were found in the Chinese-manufactured drywall but not in the domestic product.

What is the Impact of Chinese Drywall to Occupants?

Owners of homes and other buildings that contain Chinese drywall may be affected in three fundamental ways. The first, and most obvious, is a foul, sulfur odor. This, and other conditions (see below), are exacerbated by the presence of moisture such as in regions of high humidity.

Out-gassing from tainted material has also been observed to corrode copper elements in structures. The results have been inconsistent, but excessive corrosion has been observed or suspected in:

  • Electrical components (wiring, receptacles, switches, circuit breakers, panel boards, circuit interrupters, and in particular ground wiring because it is not insulated);
  • HVAC equipment and appliances (air conditioning evaporator coils, refrigerators, dishwashers, electronic devices, and flexible gas copper piping); and
  • Fire safety equipment (smoke alarms and sprinklers).

A third concern is the potential for long-term health effects. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has received reports of irritated and itchy eyes and skin, difficulty in breathing, persistent cough, bloody and runny noses, recurrent headaches, sinus infections, and asthma attacks. The Center for Disease Control is collaborating with the CPSC and various state health departments in evaluating these concerns, but has not definitely linked the defective material with reported health effects.

How Do You Know If You Have Chinese Drywall?

The first question to ask in determining whether you have Chinese drywall is whether your home, condo, or office was built or renovated between 2001 and 2007 and is located in one of the 21 states plus the District of Columbia where the product was reported to have been used. The most common locations are in Florida, Louisiana, and Virginia.

A second indicator is an unusual sulfur smell (think rotten eggs) that doesn’t go away and increases during times of high humidity. Unfortunately, the absence of a sulfur smell does not rule out the existence of the product. Furthermore, it is visually indistinguishable from domestic products. Any labeling of drywall may be painted over or be inaccessible, such as on the inside of the walls or ceilings. Some imported products were even rebranded as “Made in the U.S.A.” A further complication is that Chinese drywall may be used in only a portion of a home.

Laboratory tests range from $50 to $2,500 and use different complicated methodologies. A positive test result for the Chinese product does not mean that all drywall in the home is defective; likewise, a negative result from a limited sample does not mean it is not present elsewhere.

The EPA had planned to have a testing protocol developed by June 30. However, a July 9, 2009, inquiry drew the following response from the agency:

“We promised to finish the sampling in Louisiana and Florida homes by the end of June to test out all the possible monitoring methods that could be used in the protocol. We have done that, but we will now need to discuss the results of the in-home monitoring with the other agencies and develop an agreed-upon protocol. We hope to have all the agencies agree on a protocol by the end of the summer.”

What do You Do If You Suspect Your Home has Chinese Drywall?

Your first step should involve contacting your builder. Many builders are starting to take responsibility and setting aside funds for the remediation of affected homes. One national builder, with projects in Florida, recently established a fund that allocated $100,000 per affected residence.

If your builder is unable to help or is no longer in business, legal action may be necessary. A number of class action lawsuits have been filed. These are easily researched on the Internet.

You will probably want to confirm that Chinese drywall actually exists in your home. As stated above, there is no commonly accepted protocol for testing at the moment. Criterium Engineers, having consulted with leading research labs and industry experts, has developed an approach that includes some or all of the following:

  • Field inspection to include visual evidence of branding of drywall in attics or unfinished areas and visual confirmation of corroded piping and wiring;
  • Limited destructive inspection to access interior wall spaces; and
  • Confirmatory laboratory analysis of suspected samples.

Owners are cautioned to be aware of scams that have appeared offering instant detection and remediation. For more information, the following sites should be checked regularly:

Volume 20, Number 3

August 2009

Copyright © 2009

The Engineering Advisor is intended to enhance your knowledge of technical issues relating to buildings.  For additional information on any subject, please feel free to call us.  Our commitment is to provide you with timely, accurate information.