CHALMETTE, Louisiana – Thomas Stone and his wife rebuilt after their home was flooded by 6 feet (2 meters) of water during Hurricane Katrina, never dreaming they would face the agony of tearing it apart all over again.
They tapped Lauren Stone's retirement savings and saved $1,000 by installing Chinese-made drywall throughout their two-story home after the 2005 storm. Now the Stones are among hundreds of Katrina victims facing another, this time unnatural, disaster.
Sulfur-emitting wallboard from China is wreaking havoc in homes, charring electrical wires, eating away at jewelry, silverware and other valuables, and possibly even sickening families.
"The bathroom upstairs has a corroded shower-head, the door hinges are rusting out," said 50-year-old Thomas Stone, the longtime fire chief of St. Bernard Parish, outside New Orleans. And then there's the stench, like rotten eggs, that seems to get worse with the heat and humidity.
"It makes me wish there would be another flood to wash it out," said his wife Lauren, 49.
Chinese manufacturers flooded the U.S. market with more than 500 million pounds (227 million kilograms) of drywall around the same time Katrina was flooding New Orleans, an Associated Press review of shipping records has found.
The boom in imported China-made building materials peaked in 2006, driven by domestic shortages created by the nationwide construction boom, as well as a series of Gulf Coast hurricanes.
That year, enough wallboard was imported from China to build some 34,000 homes of roughly 2,000 square feet (186 square meters) each, according to the AP's analysis and estimates supplied by the nationwide drywall supplier United States Gypsum. But experts and advocates say many homes may have been built with a mixture of Chinese and domestic drywall — which could push the number of affected homes to 100,000 or more, by some estimates.
The drywall apparently causes a chemical reaction that gives off the rotten-egg stench and corrodes metal. Researchers do not know yet what causes it, but possible culprits include fumigants sprayed on the drywall and material inside it. The Chinese drywall is also made with a coal byproduct called fly ash that is less refined than the form used by U.S. drywall makers.
The U.S. Product Consumer Safety Commission and a number of states are investigating the extent of the problem, what's causing it, and whether it poses serious health risks. But it could be years before the full extent of the problem is known.
Meanwhile, the humid and warm climate of the U.S. South has meant the impact is being felt here first — at least 350 people in Louisiana have already complained to the state health department in yet another unexpected twist for hurricane victims who have lived through more than three years of hardship.
"We've been through the storms, we heard about the formaldehyde," Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals spokesman Renne Milligan said, referring to a previous housing nightmare in which tests showed elevated levels of formaldehyde in hundreds of trailers issued by the federal government.
"Some of our residents are still living through that, and now we're talking about this drywall," Milligan said.
Governors in Louisiana and Florida are asking for federal assistance, and members of Congress are calling for a recall and a ban on future imports.
Like hundreds of other homeowners from Florida to Texas, the Stones have signed on to a class-action lawsuit directed against the manufacturers, suppliers and builders of the drywall. The defendants in the Louisiana cases include Knauf Gips KG, Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co., Taishan Gypsum Co., L&W Supply Corp. and USG Corp., a major U.S. drywall supplier.
"What we're trying to do is get to the bottom of what is precisely going on," said Ken Haldin, a spokesman for Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin.
The lawsuits contend the Chinese drywall is emitting sulfur, methane and other volatile organic chemical compounds that are ruining plaintiffs' homes and harming their health.
Some of the companies told AP they are looking into the complaints, but downplayed the possibility of health risks.
The Chinese ministries of commerce, construction and industry and the Administration of Quality Supervision Inspection and Quarantine did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the AP, although Chinese media have reported that AQSIQ, which enforces product quality standards, was investigating.
No U.S. agency regulates the chemical compounds used in imported drywall.
Attorney Daniel Becnel has filed about 15 lawsuits in federal court in New Orleans on behalf of hundreds of homeowners.
"And we're getting more in every single day," he said. "People are just distraught."
Mississippi attorney Steve Mullins has also joined the cadre of court actions.
"Bloody noses, headaches, respiratory infections," Mullins said, ticking off the list of health problems reported by his clients. "Over and over like a broken record."
He said his research indicates the problem could exist in hundreds of thousands of homes nationwide, a conclusion echoed by other experts.
Mary Haindel's home near Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana was destroyed by Katrina's floodwaters, so she bought a new, $320,000 town-home in an area known as the North Shore, where many hurricane victims relocated. Soon, the coils on her air conditioning system went out, and copper slowly turned black — telltale signs that the tainted wallboard was used.
Haindel, a 45-year-old real estate agent and jewelry appraiser, moved out. She is now renting a condominium and says it will be difficult to sell the home.
"It's Katrina all over again," Haindel said. "It was an immediate: You got to go, you pick up, and you leave."