COLUMBUS, Ohio — A Central Ohio couple says they can’t live in their brand new home because they’re concerned it is polluted by toxic fumes.
Joe and Sara O’Byrne say they spent nearly $300,000 on their house but refuse to live in it after their builder used material that has high levels of formaldehyde. One fix is so intricate that homeowners could run the risk of structural damage to their house.
Currently, the O’Byrnes live in a hotel 30 miles from their dream home. They share about 800 square feet in a hotel with their two youngest children and their three dogs, which is down the hall and one floor below their three teenage children.
“We’re still living out of laundry baskets and suitcases,” said Sara O’Byrne.
“This was our first house together, so yes it was absolutely a dream of ours,” said Joe O’Byrne.
They own a $293,000 two-story house in the new Chestnut Commons neighborhood in Pickaway county.
“We’d come every week to take pictures of just the dirt,” said Sara O’Byrne.
The O’Byrnes now document their nightmare.
They invited 6 On Your Side into their new home for a tour. But first, they had to open up and air out the house.
“As soon as we get here when we’re visiting is open up the windows,” said Joe O’Byrne. “I don’t even know what light switches work which lights yet."
The O’Byrnes moved into their new home on June 2nd, the day they closed. “From the very first week, my eyes were running and watering. I started getting symptoms I just thought were allergies,” said Sara O’Byrne. “We thought maybe it was the dust from the new built home and he started getting sick."
At first the couple thought the odor was new home smell.
But, in a letter dated July 28th, eight weeks after the O’Byrnes moved in, Westport Homes alerted its customers in contract and those who had closed that their home required remediation on their floor joists made after December 1st 2016.
TJI Joists with Flak Jacket, which is a coating to enhance fire resistance, were used in the construction of the home. Westport homes says it first heard on July 24th from Weyerhaeuser, the company that makes the joists, about a formaldehyde off-gassing issue with the Flak Jacket coating.
Weyerhaeuser says it determined customer feedback about an odor in certain newly constructed homes was linked to a formula change to the Flak Jacket that included a formaldehyde-based resin.
“They told me to keep my windows open especially in the basement. Keep the furnace going, the A/C and stuff on to circulate the air,” said Sara O’Byrne.
Formaldehyde is a colorless toxic gas, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It has a pungent smell. The CDC says, if you breathe a lot of it, you can experience sore throat, scratchy eyes and nosebleeds. It could also cause cancer.
“I’m not willing to compromise my family and my pet’s health and live in the home,” said Sara O’Byrne.
Just over a week before, on July 18th, Weyerhaeuser announced it was halting all production, sales and shipments of its floor joists with Flak Jacket made after December 1st, 2016.
Weyerhaeuser says the joists had been installed in 2500 homes across the country and that it was footing the bill for remediation. Westport Homes says the affected joists made it into almost 150 homes in nearly a dozen Central Ohio communities. Families had already moved in to half of the new Westport Homes.
The O’Byrnes say they spent two months in their home before they saw the letter from Westport about the joists.
“I have a burning in my throat right here it’s really heavy in my chest. Right now? Right now, and I have a headache,” said Sara O’Byrne during the interview at her house.
ABC 6 On Your Side hired Lyle Environmental to test Sara and Joe’s new home to see just what was in the air. On September 29th, Tom Eggers collected two samples, one in the kitchen and the second in the basement. Both samples were exposed to the air for 3 hours.
“In general you’re looking for below 100 parts per billion Formaldehyde in the home,” said Eggers.
The Environmental Protection Agency tells ABC 6 On Your Side it has not established a safe level of formaldehyde for indoor air. Ohio doesn’t have set guidelines. The only state that does is California, which recommends a slightly lower target level of 50 parts per billion.
We converted the measurement from parts per million to parts per billion to compare with California standards. The kitchen reading showed 100 parts per billion.
“So the kitchen is almost double what it should be,” said Sara O’Byrne
There was a much higher reading of 390 parts per billion for the basement.
“Is it upsetting? You’ve gone through this for quite a while now and to see this on paper. “It is yeah, two months we spent in there since the beginning of June and had no idea,” said Joe O’Byrne.
Weyerhaeuser told builders about three remediation options.
FJ Overview of Solutions
One is to paint a top coat over the Flak Jacket to lower formaldehyde emissions. The second technique is a mechanical removal of the protective coating, like cryoblasting. The basement ceiling would then need to be drywalled to meet fire codes. The third solution calls for removing and replacing the joists.
“Option three is a brutal option. It would not be a difficult option if the house was not completed,” said Karin Cash, a construction professor at Columbus State Community College, said.
Cash gave ABC 6 On Your Side a demonstration illustrating what the third option entails.
“I could possibly want this as a fix because it would totally eliminate the problem. If it’s done right,” said Cash.
That’s because Cash says everything in a completed house is tied together and if you start breaking those ties, you risk the chance of voiding your warranty.
“You’re going to need very skilled people to lift that house up and keep that house just right and then you’re going to have to have all the plumbing and mechanicals, the wiring rerun in the trusses,” said Cash.
Westport says all of its affected homes under construction have been remediated with top coat which was the first option they were given by Weyerhaeuser. Westport says Weyerhaeuser offered the mechanical method weeks later.
Of the 70 to 75 homes with families, 30 need remediation and 17 of those customers asked for the mechanical removal.
“It’s emotional, it hurts. I want to be able to play with my kids here,” said Joe O’Byrne.
The O’Byrnes say they don’t want to compromise their house structure or warranties. But they don’t trust the paint option and would want proof the mechanical method works.
“I’m in a catch 22. I can’t have them replaced. I wasn’t aware of the cryoblasting at the time. But at the same time, he wasn’t allowing that either,” said Sara O’Byrne.
They’re even less trusting of the paint after seeing the remediation job at a neighbor’s house.
“You can literally grab by your fingers and it would flake right off so that’s definitely not an option for us,” said Joe O’Byrne.
The for sale sign in front of their house is more of a silent protest. “I don’t understand why Westport would put our families in jeopardy and why they would continue to build and make sure before we’re taken care of,” said Sara and Joe O’Byrne.
Still, the O’Byrnes are keeping up their house. They have to. But they can’t make a home.
“This was supposed to be our new life so that’s what we keep holding onto,” Joe O’Byrne.
Weyerhaeuser is paying for the remediation, relocation, and food expenses for homeowners.
Initially, a company spokesman says its expected costs to resolve the issue before-tax will be about $50 to $60 million dollars.