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Investigation of Household Drain Cleaner Sought

October 12, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A lawyers’ organization and two consumer groups want the government to investigate a household drain cleaner they contend poses a risk of explosions that can cause serious injury.

But the manufacturer says the product is ″safe and effective when used in accordance with label instructions″ and accused the attorneys of trying to drum up business.

″On any given occasion, using (the product) is akin to playing Russian roulette,″ wrote Russ Herman, president of the Association of American Trial Lawyers, in an Oct. 5 letter to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

″Even by explicitly following the product instructions, consumers may experience the risk of sudden, violent explosion with tragic consequences to their health and safety,″ Herman said.

The name of the product is blacked out in a copy of the letter obtained by The Associated Press. A source familiar with the letter, speaking on condition of anonymity, identified the product as Red Devil Lye.

Rhonda Askew, a Denver woman who is disfigured and partially blind, told a news conference today she was injured when a tablespoon of the drain cleaner ″blew back on me″ as she used it to clear a clogged bathroom sink.

″I could see it coming but I couldn’t get away from it,″ said Askew.

″I don’t know what it feels like to be happy. ...I don’t know joy,″ she said, describing how she has had 10 operations since the incident.

The lawyers association first contacted the commission about potential dangers associated with the product in August. Two consumer advocacy groups, the Consumer Federation of America and Public Citizen, also are seeking an investigation.

Red Devil Lye is a crsytalline drain cleaner manufactured and distributed by a New York-based company, Boyle Midway Household Products Inc.

″We have made repeated attempts to produce the ‘explosive’ effect described by ATLA using the product according to label directions and have never seen such results,″ said Theodore Host, president of Boyle Midway, in a written statement released Wednesday.

″ATLA is engaged in a transparent effort to promote the economic interests of its members by this blatant client-soliciting effort,″ said Host.

ATLA is a 65,000-member organization of attorneys who frequently represent plaintiffs in personal injury cases.

ATLA said it found 21 instances when the lye ″exploded from drain pipes and injured users or bystanders.″ In addition, there were reported incidents of ″ingestion by small children, with catastrophic results,″ the letter said.

″The risk of blindness or permanent eye impairment is high; severe alkaline burns to the face, arms and hands also are likely,″ Herman said.

″We are convinced that this product, which is intended to deal with a difficult household problem, is safe and effective when used in accordance with label instructions,″ said Host.

″Any assertion that the product cannot be used safely by the consumer is wholly unwarranted,″ Host added, noting the company warns on the label that lye is a dangerous product on the label.

David Smeltzer, head of the safety commission’s compliance division, said the commission had done preliminary investigations of two companies that make crystalline lye. He said it revealed more instances of explosions with liquid sulfuric acid drain cleaners than with sodium hydroxide cleaners such as Red Devil Lye.

″If appropriate, we’ll try to take some other action,″ he said. The company said it was cooperating with the commission.

Red Devil sales reached about $6 million in 1988 for a 6 percent share of the drain cleaner market, the company said.

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