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Drywall Manufacturers, Homebuilder Lobbies Weaken Drywall Safety Act, Endanger Homeowners

Toxic drywall is discarded in South Florida

The Drywall Safety Act of 2012 was heralded as a bipartisan achievement that would protect homeowners by setting limits on the amount of odorous sulfur gas that could be in the common building material.  After problems arose from dangerous drywall being used post-Katrina — most of which was imported from China — politicians began to move forward with new standards.  But heavy influence from lobbyists representing the National Association of Home Builders weakened the hoped for changes.

According to Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia, the bill’s primary sponsor in the House,

This is a bill about protecting American families — their health and financial well-being.  It is up to Congress to ensure that preventative standards are in place so no American family is faced with the hardship and heartache from contaminated drywall ever again.”

The final bill, however, presents no preventative standards and leaves the power in the hands of an industry association committee comprised mostly of drywall manufacturers and builders who will develop voluntary limits on sulfur content in drywall for the government to enforce.  This lack of checks and balances offers little recourse for those who suffered respiratory problems due to contaminated drywall.  This grave issue has gone unaddressed despite years of federal investigation by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.  

The original version of the bill, proposed by Rigell in March of 2012, stipulated that contaminated drywall be viewed as a banned hazardous substance that would bring criminal and civil penalties for those who used or sold it.  The bill was watered down after lobbyists for the National Association of Home Builders applied pressure to create an industry review board.  According to ProPublica, which has been on the forefront of the drywall issue for the past few years,

First, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce struck out Rigell’s provisions on enforcement and penalties. The revised bill instead directed the CPSC to develop labeling to make sheets of wallboard traceable to the original manufacturer and to set a limit on sulfur content inside drywall or adopt a “voluntary standard” set by the industry.

Those changes weren’t enough to satisfy the homebuilders’ lobby.

The National Association of Home Builders’ top lobbyist, James Tobin, wrote an open letter to Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, in September 2012 saying the measure still gave the CPSC too much power. Industry should be assured an opportunity to influence any rule to come out of the bill through a public comment process, the letter said.

“Homebuilding is already a highly regulated industry,” Tobin wrote. Letting the CPSC pick a voluntary standard, he said, “sets a dangerous precedent that will create unintended consequences.”

Lobbyists finally scored a win when Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana placed a hold on the bill and amended it to favor the home builders lobby.  Remarkably, many of those affected were Vitter’s own constituents.  

The weakened bill finally passed on New Years Day marking a baby step towards limiting contaminated drywall. Florida’s Herald-Tribune gave the law’s passage a luke warm review:

The legislation is not fully satisfactory, in part because some specifics have yet to be set by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The act also lacks teeth to hold accountable the Chinese companies implicated in much of the faulty drywall.

Even with these shortcomings, the measure is welcome because it should reduce the chance that future consumers will suffer the kind of nightmare that engulfed affected homeowners in Florida, Louisiana, Virginia, Puerto Rico and other locales. Some victims were not only driven out of their homes by the fumes from bad drywall; they were financially ruined because their houses basically had to be rebuilt.

Similar sentiments were shared by Colleen Stephens who had to leave her Virginia home in 2009 due to health concerns.  Though she is pleased action was taken she is disappointed that the law does not hold manufacturers and builders accountable. 

“I’m not thrilled with it, but it’s better than absolutely nothing.”


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