Bugs in the Tubs

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

The lawsuits are the first major legal assault on an appliance invented 33 years ago by Roy Jacuzzi, a California water-pump maker. Today, his invention is common even in midpriced new homes, where it's marketed as a token of the good life, a calming retreat from worry and stress.

"This lawsuit is a big concern to us; this is our business," says Phillip Weeks, president of Jacuzzi's whirlpool bath division. "We have had several experts in this field look at this. The experts we've employed have come back and told us there's no basis for it [the lawsuit]."

Bacterial buildup has "never occurred, and we can't see it would occur," he says.

Russell Walker, a vice president of Sanijet Corp., in one of the company's pipeless tubs. The Coppell start-up claims it's built a better bathtub, a pipeless whirlpool that can be thoroughly cleaned.
Russell Walker, a vice president of Sanijet Corp., in one of the company's pipeless tubs. The Coppell start-up claims it's built a better bathtub, a pipeless whirlpool that can be thoroughly cleaned.
Dallas lawyer Ted Lyon, a hotshot in the plaintiffs' bar, and a firm in Waco are suing America's three big tubmakers. "We think the law and the science are on our side," Lyon says.
Dallas lawyer Ted Lyon, a hotshot in the plaintiffs' bar, and a firm in Waco are suing America's three big tubmakers. "We think the law and the science are on our side," Lyon says.

"Jacuzzi Whirlpool Bath has continued to grow at a very strong rate over the years, the industry has continued to grow, builders have put more of these into their homes, and retailers have continued to sell more of them," Weeks says. "That wouldn't normally happen if people weren't happy about the products."

That said, Weeks couldn't say what all that black gunk is in people's tubs, except that it is not harmful bacteria. He said the company has never run its own tests on the stuff or attempted to test in a controlled, scientific way whether its cleaning instructions actually work. Although the company's files contain letters from people who claim they got sick from Jacuzzi tubs, the company did not check whether those complaints might be valid.

"They [Jacuzzi whirlpools] exhibit some kind of debris," Weeks says. "That is one of the reasons we tell people this is an appliance that needs to be periodically purged and cleaned."

If they continue to advance in the courts, the defective-product claims could end up involving millions of tub owners. Jacuzzi has sold more than 2 million whirlpools, 600,000 in just the past four years.

Malesovas and his team, which includes prominent Dallas plaintiffs' attorney Ted Lyon, are asking the companies to pay consumers the difference between the cost of plain acrylic bathtubs and what they spent for their whirlpools, roughly $1,000 in the typical case. They are also asking the companies to develop cleaning methods that kill bacteria in the pipes.

"We've found most people only use the whirlpool now and then, but everybody in the home-building business says you have to have one in your master bath for resale. So they sell a lot of them," Malesovas says. "They sell a lot of them to hotels, too. You come in and take a whirlpool bath, and some of what's blowing through came off the last person or the last dozen people. It's like hopping into a bed with used sheets. Very repulsive."


It all began with about 50 gallons of funky water in Waco. James Vandiver Jr., a friend of Malesovas', built a new house there in 1998 and installed a Jacuzzi tub. Although he claims he followed the company's cleaning recommendations once he started using it, black specks of debris started belching out of the jets. "He said, 'I think something's amiss. Have you heard anything about it?'" Malesovas recalls.

The lawyer set out to determine what was in the water and eventually commissioned a study at Montana State University in Bozeman at something called the Center for Biofilm Engineering. The center, which has conducted studies for the Environmental Protection Agency on the cleaning of hot tubs, set up an experiment to determine how much bacteria or biofilm is produced in the pipes of a drain-and-fill whirlpool in normal use. Biofilm is defined as a combination of bacteria and substances such as algae, fungi, corrosion and just about any debris found in wet places.

A new 6-foot Jacuzzi was installed in a garage, and three subjects--man, woman and child--took baths five times a week with the jets running. Samples of the bathwater, which was run into the tub from the municipal water supply, were collected on the first day of the experiment and the 44th day. That would have been well before Jacuzzi's recommended cleaning cycle of once every three or four months.

Additionally, samples of the aerosol the tub emitted while it was bubbling were collected during the experiment's last week, and a portion of the tub's interior piping was cut away and examined.

William Costerton, a microbiology professor who runs the center, reviewed the results and concluded that the tub grew biofilm in its internal piping during the 44 days. He reported that substantial amounts of Pseudomonas, a microbe linked to skin, eye and respiratory infections, were embedded in the slime.

In Costerton's opinion, water adheres to the walls of the tubs' interior pipes regardless of how well the system drains. (Under industry standards set by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and a working group dominated by the major bathroom-fixture manufacturers, a whirlpool tub can retain as much as 10 to 12 ounces of used bathwater--about a glass--in its pipes once the tub is drained.) The biofilm can be detected by its slimy feel but is not always visible, Costerton says.

Beyond that, Costerton found that the biofilm is prone to break off in clumps, which are then either circulated into the water or ejected into the air through bursting bubbles on the water's surface, increasing the chance of infection through the eyes, nose and mouth. Bathers "are surrounded by microscopic disease-causing organisms, and, unbeknownst to them, they should be taking precaution," he says. Costerton also discovered that the company's cleaning procedures were almost totally ineffective at reducing biofilm. Adequate cleaning would require far heavier concentrations of detergent and bleach and more prolonged cleaning than any manufacturer recommends, he says.

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