FORT MYERS — Homeowners looking desperately for answers on what to do about toxic, defective drywall got a message Sunday: the wait might be a long one.
More than 15,000 lawsuits have been filed in the state of Florida by homeowners who say drywall from China has been emitting such high levels of toxic gas that their family members have taken ill, appliances entire wiring systems have been ruined and their homes have fallen into foreclosure because they are unsaleable.
A forum in Fort Myers on Sunday counseled about 120 people on how to spot signs of the toxic drywall, who to turn to for help and what to do to move on with their lives. But the take-away message from the two-hour session pointed out that lawsuits take time, and the technology is still being developed to resolve a problem plaguing as many as 100,000 homes in the United States.
The discussion was hosted by Urban Habitats and sponsored by Fort Lauderdale-based Schlesinger Law Offices, which is already representing a handful of clients on Florida’s east coast, said attorney Steven J. Hammer.
Urban Habitats President Jason Robertson pointed out that many people in the room had been interviewed by media outlets and had already filed lawsuits. But, he said, many people grappling with the problem are still at risk because of phony remedies and attempts by contractors to put the equivalent of a bandage on what is effectively a virus infecting every system and surface of their homes.
“You’ve already been victimized, and you must take every precaution not to be victimized again,” Robertson said.
The two-member panel that spoke Sunday was made up of Schlesinger attorney Jonathan Gdanski and a forensic construction failure expert by the name of Spiderman Scott Mulholland. (In his spare time, Mulholland said he likes to base jump, or freefall, from buildings, earning him the name he uses professionally.)
Mulholland urged the attendees Sunday to be wary of anyone professing to know it all when it comes to defective drywall.
“I have more questions myself than answers,” said Mulholland. “If you find someone who says they do (have the answers), hang the phone up on them.”
Mulholland has been working for the last six months to develop a protocol for dealing with the issue of drywall. None exists, he said, and plenty of companies offer testing kits for thousands of dollars that do nothing or promise to pump a cleansing gas through homes for $45,000.
Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum has warned victims to be on the lookout for scam artists, who are preying upon the thousands of people in the state, which has been ground zero for the Chinese drywall crisis.
And hiring an attorney is key, Mulholland said.
The problem product often emits a sulfurous smell, similar to rotting eggs, and the hydrogen sulfide leaching out of the drywall has been blamed for corroding copper wires used to route electricity through homes, ruining appliances, as well as with causing congestion, nose bleeds, asthma, rashes, shortness of breath, fainting and vomiting.
George and Brenda Brincku moved into their dream home in Alva, Fla., in 2004. They said their drywall was manufactured by an American company, but learned Sunday that some homes contain American drywall made from recycled Chinese drywall. They believe now that their home is one of these homes.
“We had scientists in our home,” said George Brincku. “They said we had pockets (of the gas).”
The Brinckus called the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, which sent leading scientists to run tests on their home. They have binders full of the charts and graphs showing levels of highly elevated hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and strontium sulfide, to name a few chemicals. They have photos of the wiring in their home, turned black, corroded to the point that the scientists told them their 4-year-old wiring had the appearance of 40-year-old wiring.
They replaced coils on their air conditioner at least every six months. In all, they went through seven coils.
By mortgaging everything he owns, Mulholland said he has raised the $500,000 in capital he has used to run tests and discover what will fix the problem.
Through trial and error, he said he knows it will not work to paint over the drywall with any kind of epoxy or paint. The drywall, also known as gypsum, cannot be ripped out of a home and simply replaced, because he said the toxic gas has already leached into wood and cinderblock, plus the presence of dust from the drywall would recontaminate any new drywall moved into the home.
He said he is close to a fix, but it won’t be simple. It involves replacing every bit of drywall, all wiring, and removing every speck of drywall dust.
“The only reason why I mortgaged my house on this is because I think this is horrible,” Mulholland said. “This is a nightmare.”
And then there are the belongings of the people who say they are victims of what Mulholland called “the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. housing history.”
Belongings of people who lived for a few months to a year in a contaminated house emit the toxic gas as well, he said. The only option is to put those belongings — clothes, furniture, mattresses — into a chamber to remove the toxin.
A few people in the audience expressed near-disbelief at that idea, until a woman stood up to offer her own story. Marion Pfeiffer, 37, of Lehigh Acres, said she moved into her sister’s home with a bed, her clothes and cosmetics after her house gave her a rash and recurring 18-hour sinus headaches. She had become so sensitive to the gas invading her home that what was left on her belongings continued to make her skin crawl and itch.
“I threw absolutely everything out,” she said. “To this day I cannot go to my sister’s house because my skin will tingle. It will itch to no end.”
She compared the tingle to the feeling caused by rubbing against fiberglass insulation. Her scalp, her eyebrows, even her toes, itched for months. And doctors told her it was all in her head.
That was a common thread running through Sunday’s discussion. Mulholland cited case after case where people he has talked to heard from different doctors on opposite sides of the state that they needed a psychiatrist.
He said it took just one trip to the house of a woman whose baby needed nebulizers and prescription medicines to breathe — when no problem existed before moving into her home. He said that discussion reduced him to tears, and he vowed to find a solution.
“I got bit real bad by walking into her house,” he said. “It got personal and that’s when I realized, ‘Oh my goodness; this is a real problem.’”