Mercury in Gypsum Wallboard: Quietly Turning Toxic?

We've all heard the horror stories about Chinese gypsum imported to the U.S. by now. And the first lawsuit just handed a couple of million to one of the aggrieved homeowners who used the stuff. We still don't know quite how far and wide that product nightmare will go.

But if we look at the event as simply a "one bad apple" situation, the same way Enron was "one bad apple" and Bear Stearns was "one bad apple," we're not investigating the underlying chemistry of what went wrong.

Reading my usual barrage of news stories and releases this morning, I came across a disturbing release that talks about a topic I've been hammering on for years--the dangers of using unregulated waste from coal-fired power plants in building materials. It's not only used in gypsum, but also in certain lightweight concrete, along with new faux-wood composites.


The problem, as this report suggests, is that we simply don't know enough about this stuff. Also, they argue that efforts to keep toxins such as mercury out of power plant emissions mean that those heavy metals are now more heavily deposited in the leftover solid wastes being used as synthetic gypsum.

Here's the factoid that caught my eye:

"In 2001, only 15% of the total domestic gypsum supply was synthetic gypsum. By 2009, synthetic gypsum use had more than tripled, accounting for more than half (57%) of the national supply."

They add that: "the EPA is finding mercury in the synthetic gypsum itself, both Chinese and domestic. In fact, the mercury levels in one major source of U.S. synthetic gypsum was the highest of six sources EPA tested - more than three times the highest Chinese sample (2.08 parts per million versus 0.562 ppm) - in 2009."

It's time for all manufacturers using coal combustion byproducts to demonstrate the chemical composition and safety of their products.