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Leaky buildings - who is to blame?

Leaky buildings - what is the problem and who is to blame? Urgent debate speech Jeanette Fitzsimons

Mr Speaker

As more and more people find their homes rotting around them and their health at risk from toxic fungi it is inevitable that the search is on for someone to blame.

And those who feel personally challenged by the Green movement have latched on with alacrity to the bizarre claim by the Act Party that it is all the fault of the Greens. It has become somewhat of an urban myth, perpetuated by the likes of Frank Haden and several members of this House, despite the total lack of evidence.

The Minister has now put that total lack of evidence on record in reply to my earlier question. In fact the Greens never lobbied to allow the use of untreated timber for structural purposes and that is now on record as a fact.

Who, then, did lobby for the change? The answer is, the timber industry itself, and for all the reasons that are constantly pushed at us as reasons for slackening our own standards - whether it be in food safety, genetic engineering, or labelling of consumer products. New Zealand timber producers in general and Carter Holt Harvey in particular were increasingly selling into the Australian market and the standard in that country was for kiln-dried, untreated timber.

They saw a commercial advantage in producing just one product for both New Zealand and Australian markets.

Then, to sell the idea to New Zealanders who were used to boric treated timber for internal use, they came up with some greenwash - 'chemical free' timber. Like so many businesses today they climbed on the back of consumer concern about the environment and misled them with 'greenwash' to promote their own commercial interest.

Chemical free. Sounds a good idea to most people to minimise the use of toxic chemicals, unless you know the consequences.

But in fact boric treatment is not particularly toxic, except to insects. It does not create the environmental hazards of tanalising - the copper chrome arsenic treatment used for exterior timber which is in contact with the ground and the weather. That is why Greens have never had any particular reason to oppose its use.

The change was in fact driven by closer economic relations with Australia, and is part of a general move to common standards and 'harmonisation' across many regulatory functions without asking whether the same standards are appropriate here.

This is a warning for the common standard approach currently being relentlessly pursued for products like dietary supplements.

However, another urban myth doing the rounds, promoted by the same statement from Deborah Coddington, is that if only we had kept to our previous use of boric treated timber there wouldn't have been a problem. Yeah, right, as they say.

There's no doubt at all that using untreated timber for balconies and decks is lunacy and anyone who has ever worked with wood should know they won't last two years. In fact boric treated timber won't last outside for all that long either. But the same is not true for internal construction.

We can't get away from the fact that kiln-dried, untreated timber framing has always been used in the United States, in a climate that is often as wet as ours and generally without problems. Much of that timber is from pine species.

Australia, too, uses untreated, kiln-dried timber because it doesn't warp like green timber, and it doesn't reduce the insulation value of the walls. So it is not a given that untreated, kiln-dried timber will rot. But it is not intended for use outside in the weather, any more than boric treated timber is.

Advice from helpful people at FRI is that boric treatment was designed to resist insects, which kiln-dried, planed wood does well too. Boric treatment has a side effect of resisting fungus attack but the chemical leaches out quickly if it is exposed to running water and is constantly wet. So the claim that boric treated timber would not have rotted in the situation we are dealing with here, where walls are saturated much of the time because there are no eaves, joints leak and there is no drainage space between the cladding and the timber framing shows a woeful lack of understanding and should not be taken seriously.

A number of builders have contacted me with this information. You cannot expect timber designed for internal use to resist outdoor weather.

This has led to the call for all internal timber to be tanalised - treated with highly toxic and persistent chemicals to save face for a building industry that can't make a house that is even mostly weather tight.

What an outrage that would be. We have lived in this country for nearly 200 years with timber houses that were built correctly and did not rot. To start now to greatly expand the use of highly toxic CCA into internal timber just so that the industry can continue its sloppy and greedy habits is not on.

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