Anything that starts with the corrosion of copper wire and wall outlets can’t end well for homeowners, and the discovery of tainted Chinese drywall in Habitat for Humanity’s Musician’s Village certainly bears that out for some of the city’s working musicians. Of the 319 homes built by the New Orleans chapter of Habitat for Humanity since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, Habitat communications director Aleis Tusa says 165 have tested positive for Chinese drywall, including nearly every one of the 72 homes that make up the Musician’s Village.
Tainted drywall started appearing in homes across the Gulf Coast when residents began rebuilding after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Early indicators include black corrosion building up on copper wire and the discoloration of wall outlets.
Contaminates mixed into the drywall—including sulfur, strontium and iron sulfide—can cause asthma attacks, headaches, coughing, joint and muscle pain and miscarriages, according to Patricia Williams, the coordinator of the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of New Orleans. She says heavy metals in the drywall is cause for serious concern.
“People have zeroed in on the sulfur emissions, but sulfur is not the only thing that is being released,” Williams says. “This is a defective product that just crumbles and makes a tremendous amount of dust. The dust is a big problem because you are inhaling that.”
The presence of sulfur dioxide isn’t considered dangerous until levels exceed 10 parts per billion, Williams says, but tests in some homes built with Chinese drywall have turned up levels more than 10 times higher than that.
Musician Liese Dettmer’s world was turned upside down in July when her home in the Musician’s Village tested positive for toxic drywall after two negative tests.
“When I got the negative result, it was a very, very hard thing to wrap my head around,” Dettmer says. “Most everybody around me tested positive. I wanted to believe it was negative, but I demanded a retest and eventually it turned up positive.” The third test showed a concentration of sulfur radon 14 times higher than the accepted safe level of 10 parts per billion.
“The testing process is crazy,” she says. I think the ‘Made in China’ label is the end of the subject. If you have Chinese drywall, you have toxins. I’m a firm believer that every single one of the houses in my little world is contaminated.”
Tusa said Habitat for Humanity has been consulting with a wide range of experts to determine the best testing process, but even the experts agree that a foolproof testing method does not exist.
“It’s like when you’ve got a plate of food in front of you and you sprinkle salt on it,” Tusa says. “You’re going to get a little more salt in one place and a little less in another place.” The uneven distribution of toxins means one section of a sheet of drywall can test negative while another spot on the same sheet can contain dangerous levels of contaminates. “There’s a home that shows no signs of contamination, but the test came back with a concentration of 1,200 parts per billion,” she says. “I’ve got homes that show signs that test at 8.8. There’s no rhyme or reason.”
One thing is certain, though. No home that tests positive can remain inhabited until remediation takes place—a process that costs about $50,000 per home, and takes months.
“Of the 165 homes that are positive, 125 have signed remediation agreements with us,” she says. “The additional 40 are working out how they want to move forward. We are providing our families alternate housing arrangements. We’re providing them with some financial assistance for moving, as well as alternate storage options.”
The goal is to erase all traces of toxic compounds and return life to normal throughout the Musician’s Village, Tusa says, a process that should be complete by June.
“We certainly didn’t want to put families through it,” Tusa says. “It seemed like the right thing for Habitat to do to step up and help,” she says.
Al “Carnival Time” Johnson’s home in the Musician’s Village tested positive in June, and he is glad to be on the other side of the remediation process.
“Habitat has really stepped up,” Johnson says. “But this is a bad situation for everyone involved.”