The Atlantic’s Hinya Rae writes on the environmental costs and history of a stable in American homes: drywall.
During the beginning of the baby boom generation, between 1946 and 1960, more than 21 million new homes were built across America and with that grew the sales of drywall for homes. Drywall, also known was plasterboard or wallboard, “consists of two paperboards that sandwich gypsum, a powered white or dray sulfate mineral. Gypsum is noncombustible, and compared to other wall materials, like solid wood and plaster, gypsum boards are much lighter and cheaper. As a result, drywall is popular in homes across the U.S.: According to the Gypsum Association, more than 20 billion square feet of drywall is manufactured each year in North America. It's the staple of a billion-dollar construction industry that depends on quick demolition and building.”
However, as Rae reports, Gypsum is not known for its environmentalism. Workers in gypsum mines inhale gypsum dust which OSHA recommends must be limited to 15 milligrams per cubic meter for an average workday. Once mined, it is then manufactured into drywall. The Environmental Protection Agency says that once construction is finished,d most drywall scraps are sent directly to landfills. When gypsum becomes wet, it mixes with natural materials and turns into hydrogen sulfide, and a lethal gas that puts marine and freshwater animals at risk.
Furthermore, Rae reports on how the environmental issues with drywall negatively impacted New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005:
As Hurricane Katrina raged through New Orleans in 2005, neighborhood after neighborhood collapsed from flooding. Of the houses that stood, many still had to be bulldozed due to mold within the walls. But one building, a plantation-home-turned-museum on Moss Street built two centuries before the disaster, was left almost entirely unscathed.
“The Pitot house was built the old way, with plaster walls,” says Steve Mouzon, an architect who helped rebuild the city after the hurricane. “When the flood came, the museum moved the furniture upstairs. Afterwards, they simply hosed the walls—no harm done…” In his recent projects, Mouzon says house builders are starting to pay attention to alternative methods and suggestions, possibly because being eco-friendly is a current trend, but possibly also because the cost of drywall has increased dramatically. In December 2012, drywall purchasers began to file class action lawsuits against USG and the seven other major North American manufacturers for price-fixing. The purchasers alleged that a 35 percent price hike for gypsum wallboard that year was the largest within a decade and that drywall manufacturers had stopped giving them job quotes, which meant prices could change at any time during a project. A settlement fairness hearing was held in July of last year, and USG had to cough up $55 million to reimburse the purchasers' expenses.