Image: Drywall controversy
J Pat Carter  /  AP
This $1.7 million in Davie, Fla., has Chinese drywall throughout the house.
By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/16/2009 3:02:40 PM ET 2009-11-16T20:02:40

The problem is enormous. It’s estimated that as many as 100,000 homes across the country, built between 2004 and 2008, could have defective and potentially dangerous Chinese drywall.

The bad wallboard has excessively high levels of sulfur. Homeowners complain the fumes given off make them sick and corrode the copper in home wiring, fixtures and appliances, including computers, televisions and air conditioners.

Before Hurricane Rita and Katrina, most drywall in American homes was made domestically. But the demand was so great following those devastating storms, developers turned to China. It’s a decision many have come to regret.

Some people have moved out of their toxic houses. Others are trapped. Alice and Patrick Martin can’t afford to walk away from their condo in Fort Myers, Fla., and they know they can’t possibly sell it.

“We’re furious and angry this kind of thing can happen,” Patrick said. “We feel helpless and that all is lost. It’s horrible.”

The drywall has put more than their financial future in jeopardy. The Martins worry about the long-term health implications of living in their home, especially to Leo, their 5-year-old son.

“It’s very scary. There are nights where I can’t sleep worrying about it,” Alice says. “It’s constant. It’s hanging over us all the time.”

The Martins have filed a Chinese drywall lawsuit in federal court. To prepare for that case, Jerrold Parker, the family’s attorney, spent some time inside a client’s home.

“I was sick for five days,” Parker said. “My eyes were burning, they dried out. I couldn’t even sleep at night because there was so much pain.”

Parker says it costs about $25,000 per case just to serve legal papers on a single drywall manufacturer in China. And some of the affected homes have drywall from several Chinese companies.

One set of rules for everyone
“Foreign manufacturers should be subject to the same rules as American manufacturers,” says Anthony Tarricone, president of the American Association for Justice which represents trial lawyers. “They need to be held accountable and responsible when their products prove defective.”

A bill now before Congress would do just that. “The Foreign Manufacturers Legal Accountability Act of 2009” (S. 1606) would require foreign manufacturers that export to the U.S. to:

  • Agree to abide by U.S. law and be held accountable by state and federal courts;
  • Have an “agent” in at least one state where the company does business that would accept the service of legal papers for any lawsuits or regulatory claims.

In the Congressional Record, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) writes, “The list of recent examples of Americans injured by defective foreign products is shocking.”

That list includes deadly blood thinner, children’s jewelry made from lead, a variety of food products contaminated with dangerous chemicals, 60 million packages of contaminated pet food and substandard tires that failed and killed people.

Two major consumer groups, Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) support the proposed legislation.

“It is an important first step to hold these companies responsible,” says Rachel Weintraub, CFA’s director of product safety. “It makes a lot of sense that if a company is getting the benefit of the American marketplace, then it should also have the responsibility that if something goes wrong with their product, they provide redress for consumers who are harmed.”

My two cents
As global trade expands, the problem of importing dangerous products will get worse. If foreign companies are not required to meet U.S. safety standards, they will cut corners in order to deliver items at a much lower price than U.S. companies.

I don’t want to compromise my safety in order to save a few bucks. I don’t want lead in kids' toys, tires that explode or drywall that gives off dangerous fumes.

I can’t think of one good reason why any company should be allowed to export merchandise to this country unless it meets current U.S. safety standards. And if you want my money, you should be held liable for damages in our court system, just like any other company.

Dangerous products can come from any country, even U.S. companies make them. But the bulk of the problem is caused by one of our largest trading partners, China. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission tells me 60 percent of the recalls it issues each year are for Chinese products.

China needs to understand that if it wants to be our trading partner, it needs to be a partner in every sense of the word.

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