Chinese Drywall — What It Is, Why It’s Bad and Whether or Not You Have It
Every home built after 1920 — and plenty of homes built before then but renovated since — has drywall. Drywall, which is also called sheet rock, plasterboard, gypsum panel and a number of similar names, was created to replace the expensive and laborious practice of hand plastering walls; instead of wasting days smoothing out an interior wall, builders can instead erect a wall in a matter of minutes, given the right tools and know-how.
Drywall serves a number of purposes in your home: It insulates against wind, precipitation and temperature; it insulates against sound; it serves as a fire barrier; and it provides a smooth, level surface for paint and décor. Yet, drywall isn’t invulnerable.
In places with high humidity, like Florida and Washington, drywall repair due to water damage is a common occurrence, and any home anywhere can succumb to drywall cracks and holes thanks to improper installation, foundation issues, teenage rage and more. If you own a home, it’s a good idea to have the number of a trustworthy drywall repair service, so you have someone to call when a drywall issue emerges.
In recent years, one of the most concerning drywall issues has been Chinese drywall. A vague name for a serious problem, Chinese drywall is exceedingly toxic — and it affects more than 100,000 homes across the U.S. It’s important that current and prospective homeowners understand what Chinese drywall is, why crisis occurred, who is at risk and what solutions are available.
The Chinese Drywall Crisis: The Beginnings
Calling this issue “Chinese drywall” is a bit misleading. In truth, most drywall is Chinese; one estimate suggests that 550 million pounds of drywall has been imported from China since 2006. It’s important to note up front that not all drywall from China is dangerous, only a specific batch sent to America during a certain period of time.
The housing boom in the mid-2000s — as well as the widespread damage in the South after Hurricane Katrina — led to a shortage of American-made drywall, pushing construction firms, home improvement stores and others to look elsewhere for drywall.
China offers low-cost materials almost across the board, so it became a natural recourse for builders across America. Chinese drywall manufacturers were then pressed to produce more and more drywall given the immense American demand, and it’s likely then that they started cutting corners.
The first hints that Chinese drywall might be a problem occurred in 2009, when reports started coming to light of horribly corroded plumbing and electrical wiring within new homes. Alongside these were stories of pungent smells and homeowners with health concerns, like headaches, difficulty breathing and more. Upon investigation, researchers the only unifying factor in all cases was the drywall, imported from China.
Drywall contains a number of standard ingredients, such as gypsum and cellulose, but different manufacturers add different quantities of trace materials for stability, color, smell and more. These additives might include things like mica, starch, crystalline silica and wax.
Chinese drywall manufacturers added in a substantial amount of fly ash, a product of coal combustion that includes all sorts of elements and compounds, such as arsenic, lead, mercury and sulfur.
Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem; American drywall manufacturers have used fly ash in the past. However, it seems that Chinese drywall contains an unrefined type of fly ash that degrades in the presence of heat and moisture, releasing toxins. Additionally, studies have found that Chinese drywall contains a significantly higher amount of pyrite. As pyrite oxidizes, it releases sulfur compounds, which are also toxic.
Health Risks Associated With Chinese Drywall
Initially, the reports of homeowner ill-health were vague, but after studying the drywall, scientists and doctors have a clearer idea of what Chinese drywall can do to the human body.
The primary concern is sulfur gases, which emit from the drywall. Sulfur gases have long been known to cause near-immediate and lasting damage to the body — specifically the respiratory system because the gas enters the body through the act of breathing.
In the short term, homeowners noticed sensations like burning throat, cough, shortness of breath and chest pain, which is consistent with sulfur dioxide poisoning. If they didn’t immediately address the drywall issue, homeowners began to experience more troubling symptoms, such as insomnia, dizziness, headaches and memory loss. Eventually, exposure to the drywall could result in serious respiratory and neurological issues.
How to Tell If Your Home Is Affected
It’s estimated that more than 100,000 homes across the country have been impacted by Chinese drywall. However, that’s not even close to the number of homes built every year across America, so most homeowners don’t need to be concerned about the quality of their drywall. Still, homeowners who are experiencing certain health symptoms might be interested to learn how to verify that their drywall is safe. Here are some ways to check:
- Know where Chinese drywall is. The vast majority of complaints about Chinese drywall have come from Florida, where the humid air exacerbates the problem. Other states have been affected, but not all of them, so homeowners should investigate before assuming.
- Pay attention to the odors in the home. Chinese drywall emits sulfur gases, which have a characteristic smell — like rotten eggs. This isn’t the only indication of Chinese drywall, but it is a good place to start.
- Know the history of the property. If the home was built between 2001 and 2007, it could contain Chinese drywall. However, even if it was built before then, a remodel scheduled during that period could also have relied on Chinese drywall.
- Get a plumbing and electrical inspection. If this reveals blackening or disintegration of copper wiring, pipes or AC evaporator coils, Chinese drywall is likely present.
- Look for Chinese markings on the drywall. This isn’t always possible; many homeowners paint over drywall. However, if there is an unpainted drywall surface, homeowners should look for Chinese symbols and words like “Knauf,” or “Tianjin.”
Quick Fix for Homes With Chinese Drywall
Because the source of both health and household problems stem directly from the drywall, it is necessary to remove all toxic drywall and replace it with a non-toxic substitute. Even if only a small portion of the home contains Chinese drywall, this can be a major project; it requires tearing down existing walls and rebuilding them.
Homeowners should strongly consider hiring a drywall expert for this chore, to ensure the drywall is hung properly and no traces of Chinese drywall remain.
Chinese drywall made headlines nearly a decade ago when news of its existence was first discovered — but it’s likely that all traces of Chinese drywall have not been eradicated across America. Homeowners should know about the risks of Chinese drywall, as well as its symptoms, to stay safe at home.