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Made in China: A stinking, rotting mess?

Thousands of Americans allege Chinese drywall is ruining their homes and making them sick.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden glues drywall at a Habitat for Humanity house in Washington on January 19, 2009. Thousands of new homes in the U.S. are plagued by problems suspected to be caused by defective drywall from China. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania — On the outside, they are new and sunny looking. On the inside, they are strange-smelling and rotting. These are the thousands of new houses built in the United States within the past few years that owners allege may contain yet another problem export from China: bad drywall.

Since 2006, new home owners in 23 states have been suffering from what they say are odorous batches of corrosive drywall that were imported from at least one gypsum mine in China and used by U.S home builders.

Owners say their houses smell like rotten eggs and are causing breathing problems and skin irritations. They worry their homes have become worthless as air conditioners and other mechanical parts corrode and become non-functioning. The problem is thought to be high levels of sulfur-compound gases being released from the drywall.

Homes that are affected were built in the aftermath of hurricanes in 2005 when building booms in Florida and Louisiana contributed to domestic drywall shortages, causing suppliers to look to China.

Unlike other tainted imports from China — such as formula, toothpaste and pet food, which can be swiftly taken off retail shelves — gypsum drywall cannot be easily removed since it is behind walls and ceilings, affecting the performance of plumbing, wiring, and electrical systems. It is a ubiquitous homebuilding material.

Attorneys representing homeowners estimate more than 2,000 lawsuits already have been filed in state and federal courts, targeting Chinese, U.S. and German companies, as well as builders, installers, suppliers, distributors and import brokers.

"We expect about 20 manufacturers of Chinese drywall to be involved in these cases,” said Jeremy Alters, an attorney in Miami handling many of the cases. "There is no quality control in this drywall. It’s hard to believe no one knew it was bad. It is destroying homes and it will cost billions.” One of the most prominent Chinese manufacturers named is Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co. Ltd. Others are Knauf Plasterboard Wuhu Co. Ltd and Knauf Plasterboard Dongguan Co. Ltd., as well as a German affliate, Knauf Gips KG. There are numerous other Chinese companies being added to legal complaints as time goes on, such as Beijing New Building Material PLC.

So serious are the potential cost and health implications that several U.S. federal agencies, members of Congress, states, and health and legal authorities are assessing the scope of the problem.