In 2006, Crystal Kinler and her family moved to Ruskin. Having survived Hurricane Katrina, she and her husband, Gerard, were ready to start fresh with their four children in the perfect family home.
Kinler envisioned her new home as a place where her four children would giggle in pillow forts. Where her newborn baby would learn to walk and drool and play. Where her daughters would have sleepovers with their best friends and talk about the boys in their grade.
Where her husband would come home from a long day teaching with a bouquet of flowers for her, just because.
Instead, her home was where her family would become sick. The walls, hung with picture frames and snapshots, were made from toxic Chinese drywall that was causing chemicals to seep into everything and everyone inside. And the longer they stayed, the sicker they got.
Now, Kinler has thyroid cancer, and she believes her home is what caused it.
A Healthy Home
A few months after moving into their brand new Ruskin home, Kinler noticed something wrong.
“My son was having nosebleeds all the time. I also had an infant and she was very sick,” says Kinler. “Our newborn stayed sick and needed a nebulizer treatment about six times a day.”
Around the same time, Kinler noticed her silverware and jewelry had begun turning black, and her appliances started breaking down. She began experiencing the common signs of toxic drywall homes: Electronics and the air handler stopped working several times and the air sometimes smelled foul. It all raised red flags, but, unwilling to rush to conclusions, Kinler thought maybe her family was just having a run of bad luck.
She took her children to doctors, and at one point her 6-month-old daughter was admitted to All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. They tested her children for everything, and also questioned Kinler about her son’s constant major nosebleeds. Members of the family were tested for various illnesses throughout the three years that they lived in the home until a doctor finally discovered that it was their environment making them sick.
A home inspection determined what they had begun to suspect: that that the drywall was in fact Chinese drywall—which meant that the walls of the Kinlers’ house were filled with toxic chemicals that only worsen over time.
During the early to mid-2000’s, homes were being built with cheaper materials since new construction was in such high demand. However, the cheaper some of the materials were, the more toxic they became as the years passed. Not only was the drywall being used toxic, but many homes were also made with contaminated laminate flooring that contains toxic amounts of formaldehyde. Other common toxic materials used in home building include insulation that can release formaldehyde, carpeting made with artificial dyes or treatments as well as carpeting made with flame retardant and phthalates, and PVC products like vinyl flooring.
Not only can the Chinese drywall cause health issues, but toxic materials like phthalates and formaldehyde can wreak major havoc on the endocrine system and has been linked to asthma, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity, low IQ, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioral issues, autism spectrum disorders, and altered reproductive health. These same chemicals can be found in PVC products like piping and vinyl flooring in addition to carpet.
Toxic homes are still being bought and sold every day, but owners are discovering too late that they cannot afford to replace all of the toxic materials.
“Chinese drywall can release dangerous gasses that can be harmful to children and adults,” says Joseph Perno, M.D., from the division of emergency medicine and chief of staff at All Children’s Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine. “The main problems tend to be respiratory and [are] similar to the effects of sulfur gasses.”
Common complains of those exposed to Chinese drywall include: respiratory irritation (like chronic cough or wheezing), headaches, sinusitis, eye and throat irritation, and malaise or other weakness, according to Perno. He also warns that telling the difference between your child being sick from their environment or from regular germs can be difficult.
“Healthy children who are in either daycare or school may get sick 10-12 times per year. However, if the child is having repeat infections such as pneumonia, sinusitis, and ear infections, there may be a household trigger,” says Perno. “Similarly, if the child is suffering from chronic (not seasonal) allergy symptoms they may be sensitive to household allergens and allergy testing may be warranted.”
Home builders and government agencies, including the FDA and the CPSC, have not found reasons to believe that the effects will be lasting.
“Because many consumers report that their symptoms lessen or go away when they are away from their home, but return upon re-entry, it appears that these are short-term symptoms related to something within the home,” says a spokesperson from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). “The CPSC is confident that its extensive research and testing have been successful in defining the scope of the problem drywall issue.”
However, Perno says that there haven’t been many tests done by the government to determine the long-term effects of living with Chinese drywall, and that the effects can cause bigger issues, saying: “Often we see repeated or chronic infections.”
Kinler says she has experienced chronic issues in her children, her husband, and herself.
“I truly believe that the Chinese drywall is what caused my cancer,” Kinler says. “I was healthy before. I always took good care of my body, and now after living in that home, I have thyroid cancer. I don’t want to worry if my kids will be sick when they are older. I don’t want to think about them getting cancer when they are in their thirties or forties,” says Kinler. “No mother wants to have to think about that, but now I do.”
Nowhere to Turn
When the Chinese drywall was discovered, Kinler was shocked.
After trying seeking several avenues for help, including contacting their lender, their homeowners insurance and the home builder, the Kinlers realized that nobody would help them, so they had to make the decision to leave their home and all of their belongings.
“If you’re going to have to make a choice between your home and your kids, you will always choose your kids,” Kinler says. “So we packed up and we walked. We lost everything that we invested in the house, every penny we put into it, and suddenly, we were homeless.”
The Kinler family wasn’t able to bring many of their possessions because they had all become toxic. Her children’s beds, their family furniture, clothes and toys– all were left behind. The toxins from the walls had seeped into all of their belongings so deeply that they would only become sicker if they brought them.
In an unfortunate twist of fate, the next home they moved into was also made with Chinese drywall, which Kinler discovered after moving in, much like many renters and new homebuyers.
Unlike homebuyers, renters don’t often have an inspector take a look at a new home, so thousands of renters have moved into the toxic homes that homeowners couldn’t (or wouldn’t) fix. Not only are homes with toxic drywall and floors being bought and sold still, but they are also being rented out to unknowing families.
While there are guidelines for remediating homes set by the CPSC, they are not mandatory, and many contractors will do quick fixes—like removing drywall and repainting but not replacing the wires and the fixtures that were eroded by the walls, leaving toxic chemicals to lurk just below the surface.
Once a family is locked into a lease or rental agreement, the financial burden of breaking the lease can cause even more stress. However, without a recall, it is nearly impossible to get the financial assistance needed to fix the homes that are made with toxic chemicals.
“Neither the Chinese government, nor Chinese manufacturers, has been forthcoming about assistance with problem drywall and flooring,” says a spokesperson from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). “CPSC cannot order a business to conduct a recall without a hearing.”
If the home was built with toxic or dangerous flooring, there is little that a renter can do outside of replacing the flooring themselves with no garuntee of reimbursement.
To help raise awareness, Kinler started an online petition with Change.org. Her goal is for all of the voices that have been affected by a toxic home to be heard. She is up to almost 100,000 signatures.
What You Can Do
One of the easiest ways to avoid having a toxic home is to make sure that your home is being built with the safest materials available if you are purchasing new construction. Finding a green building supplier is key in making sure that your flooring, drywall and insulation will not leak toxic chemicals over time. Ask about a builder’s designations, such as the National Association of Home Builders’ Certified Green Professional or the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED AP.
If you are purchasing rugs, carpeting, or installing new flooring in your home, avoid purchasing synthetic materials. Wool carpets and rugs typically are safer for families. Nature’s Carpet and EarthWeave are two brands that offer safe carpet alternatives that are low on chemicals. It is also vital to stay away from toxic carpet padding, so rubber carpet pads and pads made from recycled content are typically the safest.
If you are installing new tile, laminate, or a wood floor, check to see if the flooring has been treated with a fire retardant or if it was made with PVC. Hardwood floors are often the safest and greenest choice for your home and will emit the least amount of toxic gasses. Ceramic tile is another safe solution and it has a huge advantage when it comes to cleaning up after the kids’ messes—not only can you easily install it but it can withstand nearly any cleaning process.
If you suspect that your home may have been built with toxic materials, a home inspection is the first step. Florida still currently has the highest number of homes made with Chinese drywall among the 44 states battling the issue.
When you are purchasing a home, ask the homeowner if the home was built after 2004 and if it has ever had a history of drywall issues. The seller or agent is required to disclose this information when asked. A sulphur-like smell when you walk in the door is another red flag to look for.
If you are renting, take a little bit of extra time to research when the home was built and any prior complaints. Talk to the owner and make sure to ask about any prior drywall issues. Education is key in making sure that your family doesn’t fall victim to these toxic homes. It is extremely important to get out of the home if it has been made with toxic chemicals.
“This is something in your home. If you can’t be safe in your own home, then where can you be safe?” says Kinler.
Red flags to watch for:
Metal beginning to tarnish. For example: picture frames, silverware, appliances that are silver will begin to turn black.
Fairly new appliances regularly breaking down. Routine issues with air conditioner units.
Pets becoming ill when they were otherwise healthy.
Foul smell like rotten eggs in the house.
Electronics breaking routinely.
Major nosebleeds in kids
Builders, building owners, or sellers who are hesitant to discuss the home’s building materials.
Safe Flooring Alternatives:
Wool carpets and rugs. Nature’s Carpet and EarthWeave are safe solutions for carpeting.
Real hardwood is one of the safest options, and it is easy to clean. Make sure to find out if it was treated with fire retardants before purchasing—if it was, it may be toxic.
Consider your sub-flooring. Rubber is a great option, as well as Wonder Board.
Ceramic tile is a safe solution to toxic flooring. Consider the type of grout and what types of sealants are being used and ask for non-toxic sealant.
To sign Kinler’s petition, visit change.org.
Krista is the editorial assistant for Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine and has been a contributing writer for several Bay Area publications. She has been with Tampa Bay Parenting since June 2014 and is excited to bring her experience as a writer to the best family publication in the Bay. She strives to tell accurate and compelling stories to help families make informed decisions.