03 April 2010

What it costs (Part 3) / Why I'm a liberal (Part 2)

This wasn't originally going to be part three, but I read something in the paper this morning that I found so extraordinary that I had to comment on it. From the SJ Mercury News, here's the headline:

"Feds: Homes with Chinese drywall must be gutted."

And here’s the story.

During the 2000’s, drywall was imported from China that was found to be tainted. Toxic. Poisonous. From the Christian Science Monitor, one homeowner who moved into a house with the tainted product reported a stench of rotten eggs, and worse:

...mirrors that corroded around the edges, drains that rusted on the baths, pitted faucets, the television, computer, dishwasher, coffee pot, telephones, and air-conditioning system that all inexplicably broke down. Even the treasured gold-dipped necklace she wore around her neck turned black. Then there were the headaches, throat and sinus troubles.

Seems that Chinese drywall "contained strontium sulfide, which gives a rotten egg odor when moistened and reacts with hydrogen in the air to take on corrosive powers capable of eating through metals and electrical wires." And human tissue, like lungs and throats and eyes.

So. Over the last decade we imported an estimated 500 million pounds of drywall from China that was inadequately - or never - inspected. It turned out to be toxic. According to a great piece of reporting in the Sarasota, Florida, Herald Tribune, most of it ended up in Florida (graph and maps in PDF here, story here,), but the second biggest shipment - enough for 6,500 homes - went to post-Katrina New Orleans. Twelve states in all got shipments of the toxic drywall, and all told it was enough to build 61,000 homes.

I had two quick reactions. One was: We import DRYWALL!? What are we doing?

I worked construction with my brother one summer, and I have carried drywall around. I know from personal experience how heavy it is - one 4 x 8 foot sheet 1/2 inch thick is about 54 pounds. How can it possibly be more economical for very heavy drywall to be made in China, shipped from drywall factories to a port, loaded onto a ship, sailed 7,251 miles, say, from Hong Kong to the port of Long Beach, unloaded onto a train (or worse, a flatbed truck), and trucked or shipped across the country to Florida, than it is to make it somewhere in the United States? How big is that carbon footprint? How is it possible that this makes economic, environmental or ethical sense? According to the Christian Science Monitor story, from 2001 to 2007 we bought 500 million pounds of drywall from China. (Other sources also give the amount purchased as 500 million pounds but give a time window of 2004-2008 or "from 2006.") That’s 250,000 tons of drywall! Every Prius ever sold couldn't make up for the climate footprint of one laden tanker ship burning bunker fuel crossing the Pacific with a few tons of drywall in its guts.

Can it really be cheaper to do this? Well, of course you need to ask: "cheaper for whom." When we as consumers make decisions in the marketplace to save a buck, at least we have the power to make the choice, and we have to live with the consequences. In this case, those making the purchase have no motive except profit margin, and they don't have to live with the result.

Which as I thought about it brought me to my second reaction: This is why we need government! Okay, "invisible handers," TEA Partiers who think government should be dismantled, Grover Norquist who wants to get government so small he could drown it in his bathtub - why don't you all go live with the results of inadequate oversight and regulation?

Who was in charge while this was happening? Republicans. The Small Government Party. The Party who thinks we should just let the market regulate itself. The party who was so busy keeping us safe from fanatically religious Al Qaeda by invading rigorously secular Iraq that they couldn't keep poisoned goods from swamping our markets and ending up in American homes.

You see the pictures of the blackened pipes and faulty appliances due to the drywall and you start to get a sense of the scope of the problem. You read about these people in homes they can't live in because it will make them sick, and that they can't move out of because they can't afford it, with no recourse in many cases, and it makes you feel so bad for them that you stop thinking "well, it serves you right, you small government fetishizing, anti-own-self-interest voting, Republican traitor staters!" You really feel bad for them. And even in the reddest districts there are some Democratic voters.

What can these homeowners do? Some developers, to their credit, are trying to do the right thing by paying for the homeowners to move out while the poisoned products are removed from their homes. Or their homes are bulldozed and rebuilt. (Literally - some homes are so contaminated they need to be taken down to the ground by haz-mat teams.) Who's paying for it? Chinese manufacturers? Riiiight. Not so much. I'm sure the TEA Partiers, if they had to live in these houses, would be dead set against any government recourse and against any additional government oversight at ports to inspect imports - to be intellectually consistent, I mean.

China continues to manipulate their currency so that their exports are artificially cheaper - up to 40% cheaper by some estimates. And we keep buying them, or buying products with Chinese exports already in them. And we keep getting poisoned. Again, from the Christian Science Monitor:
Toxic baby toys, tainted animal feed and toothpaste, hazardous high-chairs, and infant formula contaminated with melamine have all been the focus of product recalls or warnings over the past 18 months.
All from China. We need to think about where the stuff we buy is made, and we think to think about where the stuff that goes into the stuff we buy is made.

And once again, we maybe could think a little bit more about what we save when we save a buck.

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