Tuesday, April 14, 2009

At what point do we just quarantine the entire Middle Kingdom?

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,

Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes all the same.

There's a green one and a pink one

And a blue one and a yellow one,

And they're all made out of ticky tacky

And they all look just the same.

You may have heard of so-called "sick house syndrome," a very off-putting situation where one's house — or rather, the chemicals, toxins, or even flora present in the walls, ceilings, floors, or ducts of the home — is making you ill or worse.

Enter the Chinese! The same country that gives you lead paint in children's toys and yellow dust has also been providing cheap building materials may be poisoning the residents of the homes in which they were used, according to an AP investigation:
At the height of the U.S. housing boom, when building materials were in short supply, American construction companies used millions of pounds of Chinese-made drywall because it was abundant and cheap.

Now that decision is haunting hundreds of homeowners and apartment dwellers who are concerned that the wallboard gives off fumes that can corrode copper pipes, blacken jewelry and silverware, and possibly sicken people.

Shipping records reviewed by The Associated Press indicate that imports of potentially tainted Chinese building materials exceeded 500 million pounds during a four-year period of soaring home prices. The drywall may have been used in more than 100,000 homes, according to some estimates, including houses rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina.
This makes me wonder how much of this stuff is in Korean homes. Fortunately my apartment was built in 1981, long before any cheap Chinese material may have ended up in the building. But I did refurbish it in 2003, but most of the materials were Korean, Japanese, or American.

I'm not trying to pick on the Chinese, but there is a glaring problem with their economic model as applied to exports: success comes by providing labor and materials that are as cheap as possible. For now it is price, not quality, where they compete. They are like circa-1985 Hyundai exports, if the Excel could kill you just while you're sitting there.

I'm not an economist, but it seems to me it goes something like this: China started out with cheap labor that attracted foreign companies wishing to use the country as the Factory to the World, but as the economy grew, so did labor costs. To remain competitive, either cheaper labor must be found (which is possible, since it's a country of 1.3 billion people) and/or corners must be cut in production. As the article notes, the cheaper drywall manufacturing process in China is less refined, which can lead to problems like this.

And so while loads of people now have homes that smell of organic decay, is there a reason to panic? From the AP article:
A Florida Department of Health analysis found the Chinese drywall emits "volatile sulfur compounds," and contains traces of strontium sulfide, which can produce the rotten-egg odor and reacts with air to corrode metals and wires.

But the agency says on its Web site that it "has not identified data suggesting an imminent or chronic health hazard at this time."
This reminds me when I was a kid during the controversial malathion spraying in California to get rid of the Mediterranean fruit fly. Sacramento authorities insisted that the malathion was not harmful to humans but you should cover your car if you are in the path of the aerial spraying because it will rip the paint off.

Anyhoo, I don't point fingers just at the Chinese manufacturers; the American tendency to keep running headlong until one crashes into a brick wall is also to blame. If we (as a country) were building homes so fast that we were importing materials whose safety we could not vouch for, maybe that is reckless development. Why do we always have to keep growing, growing, growing? It's that kind of attitude that got us into the current financial crisis: expanding profits was all-important, how it was done or what was created (or destroyed) in the process was immaterial.

[above: This is something else that happens when you build things willy-nilly without consideration for whether or not they should be there. Annual brush fires are Mother Nature's way of saying, "You shouldn't be living right here."]

My heart goes out to the people who are stuck with these homes. In western Orange County, decades after thousands of tract homes were built they discovered that two centuries of cows crapping on the once sprawling ranchos had created soil so alkaline that it was dissolving the concrete foundations of the houses. The ones who first noticed it got settlements with their insurance companies, but the later ones were s.o.l., literally. I really hate seeing something like that happen.

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