Bugs in the Tubs

Texas consumers take on the whirlpool business--and that mysterious black crud shooting out of their bathtub jets

Ted Marules' new bathroom is neither subtle nor cheap. "We had visions of grandeur," he says of the $20,000 renovation to his Houston-area home. "We planned to have some wonderful moments in there." Marules and his wife sprung for all the frills: special-order Spanish tile, marble floors, gold faucets and the Texas-sized whirlpool bathtub. "We got some really nice, fancy stuff, and we spent the damned money for it," says the 53-year-old accident reconstruction expert. "Looks like a Roman whorehouse, but it's beautiful."

The centerpiece of Marules' marble palace is the hourglass tub, a 10-jet Jacuzzi mounted like an acrylic altar at one end of the room. It set him back $1,897.70. In its promotional materials, Jacuzzi says the tub Marules bought, the Real model, "surrounds the bather in sumptuous curves for an exceptional bathing experience." Through the Magic Touch controls and PowerPro jet system, it promises "optimal hydrotherapy" in the form of 45 gallons per minute propelled at the body, neck and feet.

The waterproof pillow was optional. What the heck--Marules bought that, too.

Scene of the grime: Top, the Jacuzzi tub in Ted Marules' new $20,000 bathroom. Middle, some of the residue left in a whirlpool bath. Bottom, the guts of a typical fill-and-drain whirlpool tub, which some Texas consumers claim are a breeding ground for harmful bacteria.
Mark Graham
Scene of the grime: Top, the Jacuzzi tub in Ted Marules' new $20,000 bathroom. Middle, some of the residue left in a whirlpool bath. Bottom, the guts of a typical fill-and-drain whirlpool tub, which some Texas consumers claim are a breeding ground for harmful bacteria.

The contractor finished Marules' bathroom late last year, just in time for his New Year's resolution to lose weight. "I have a bad back," he explains. "The doctor said if I lost some of my belly, my back would start feeling better. I started exercising, walking, and I started using the Jacuzzi more. It felt great. I'd sit in the tub maybe 30, 45 minutes with those big jets hitting my back."

Around the time Marules started taking his long soaks, he began noticing the tub was producing "a yellow, golden, brownish scum, a kind of scummy foam. After I'd drain it, it left a kind of brownish residue, like ring around the collar."

Marules says he first thought the substance was something in the new plumbing. He would clean the tub and run low-sudsing detergent through its piping as the Jacuzzi instruction manual specified. But every time he ran the tub, it just blew out more gunk. "I can't tell you what's in there, but something's dramatically wrong," he says.

Consumer e-mail sent to Jacuzzi's California headquarters last year shows Marules isn't alone. Jacuzzi owners across the country have complained about unsavory substances blowing from the nozzles in their tubs.

"We just purchased a new house. When we turned on the Jacuzzi tub, there was a lot of black fungus-type mold that comes out of the jets," wrote one of the 165 people who e-mailed the company over a 10-month period to make the same basic complaint. Wrote another, "I have a Jacuzzi whirlpool that is a little over a year old. Recently, the jets started spraying out black gunk." And another, "Began to get discharge of really cruddy black particles during circulation...How disgusting!"

The Jacuzzi whirlpool owners described emissions of "brown scum," "yellowish film," "crud," "shmutz," "soot," "black particulate debris," "black filmy debris," "black grunge," "a dark leafy growth," "reddish film," "greenish-black chunks," "black gunk," "black sludge," "black film on the bubbles," something "that looks like an onion skin, only black," "horrible black sludge" and "black debris the consistency of wet leaves or the film off of pudding." There were words such as "nasty" and "gross" scattered through a handful of them.

Tub owner Jon Zitman told the company, "I am a builder, and a lot of my buyers are encountering the same problem." Charles McDowell lamented, "My wife doesn't want to use it. She feels dirty after getting a bath." Robert Hicks asked why the problem wasn't addressed in the owner's manual or company Web site. "Surely I'm not the only one. If I am the only one, is my health endangered?"

Several Texas plaintiffs' attorneys are asking just that question in an obscure, yet potentially far-reaching class-action lawsuit against Jacuzzi Inc., the nation's largest maker of whirlpool tubs. The lawyers contend that scientific research from universities in Texas and Montana shows the tubs build up potentially harmful, infectious bacteria in their internal pipe systems and that the company's recommended cleaning methods don't adequately fight it. Furthermore, they claim the bacteria becomes airborne because of the bubbling, frothing action of the tub, exposing bathers and anyone nearby.

"Our case is simply that the sole, entire function of this whirlpool is to create a pleasant, relaxing bathing experience," says John Malesovas, who brought the case in a state court in Waco. "The reality of the situation is these tubs build up this debris, this biofilm, and it gets re-emitted into the water. Many times it's visible, many times it is not. You don't know it's there, but all this bacteria is flowing around you."

Malesovas, who also has sued tub makers Kohler Co. and Lasco Bathware on behalf of consumers in cases pending in Canton, Texas, says there is no evidence that people have actually become sick because of the tubs, although company files contain complaints from people who say they believe their whirlpools made them ill.

Instead, they contend that people aren't getting what they're promised when they buy a whirlpool tub. Because of their design, the tubs retain small amounts of water in their pipes--as well as soap film, hair, dead skin, body oils, dirt, anything washed off in the bath, including feces--and become a friendly breeding ground for bacteria, the lawsuits claim. The companies mislead consumers when they fail to mention possible bacteria buildup in the 20 feet or more of plastic piping strapped to the outside walls of the tub and recommend cleaning procedures that do not work to kill the bugs.

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