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Home sick: Alleged ill effects from Chinese drywall

When thousands of Americans believe a product is making them sick, often that product gets recalled.

But in this case, it’s not so easy. The product is not a toy or tainted food — it’s an entire wall, of a living room, a bedroom or a bathroom. The walls are made with a kind of drywall, also known as “sheet rock” or “plasterboard.”

And what makes a recall nearly impossible is that the drywall was manufactured overseas, where American consumer agencies have no jurisdiction.

Here’s the story: between 2004 and 2007, the United States had a drywall shortage, mostly because of a building boom but also a series of hurricanes that wreaked havoc in the South. Chinese manufacturers capitalized on the shortage by exporting millions of sheets of drywall to the U.S. — enough to build approximately 61,000 average-sized houses.

Some homeowners with the Chinese drywall soon began to complain of respiratory problems. Appliances began to fail. And the homeowners found themselves caught between a rock and the hard facts of the global economy.

As part of our series, The Watch List,  in which we keep an eye on the agencies who are supposed to keep an eye out for us, Need to Know brings you this report, in cooperation with the independent investigative journalism group ProPublica, along with investigative reporter Aaron Kessler.