DENVILLE, N.J. Walter E. Friedel’s plans to waterproof the tile floors of his hot tub room using Stand ’n Seal, a do-it-yourself product sold at his local Home Depot, promised to be a quick weekend project, one he could wrap up in time to catch the Giants football game on a Sunday afternoon.
Stand ’n Seal seemed to offer an easy means to a successful do-it-yourself home project.
The product offered “a revolutionary fast way” to seal grout around tiles and, its label boasted, any extra spray would “evaporate harmlessly.”
“It sounds like no big deal,” Dr. Friedel said, looking back.
But instead of watching football that afternoon, Dr. Friedel, a 63-year-old physician, ended up being rushed to the hospital, where he would spend four days in intensive care, gasping for air, his lungs chemically inflamed.
Dr. Friedel was the latest victim of a product whose dangers had become known months earlier to the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the companies that made and sold it. Before Dr. Friedel bought Stand ’n Seal, at least 80 people had been sickened using it, two of them fatally.
But even then, with the threat well-documented, the manufacturer, retailer and the commission had failed to remove the hazard from the shelves.
The task of getting dangerous products out of consumers’ reach is perhaps the most pressing challenge the Consumer Product Safety Commission faces in this era of surging recalls, particularly of products from China. It is an essential part of the agency’s mission, because premarket testing is not required for consumer products in the United States.
Nancy A. Nord, the commission’s acting chairwoman, said the agency was proud of its record of moving rapidly and forcefully to pull hazardous products off the market.
“The point is to get the recall out there, to get the consumer informed of what’s happening and then try to get the product out of consumers’ hands,” Ms. Nord said in testimony to a House panel in September. “I think a recall process works very well.”
But the Stand ’n Seal case is a powerful illustration of the commission’s failure to fully live up to its mission.
Court documents show that, as the case unfolded, the product’s maker, BRTT, appeared at times to be more concerned with protecting its bottom line than with taking steps to ensure that the hazard was removed. That meant that hazardous cans of Stand ’n Seal remained on the shelves for more than a year after the 2005 recall.
And the product that BRTT initially rushed to put in its place — and which Dr. Friedel and others bought — contained the same chemical that had apparently caused injuries in the first place, the company and Home Depot now acknowledge....
In the spring of 2005, one of Roanoke’s suppliers — Easy Care Products of Scottsdale, Ariz. — switched the active ingredient from a chemical known as Zonyl 225, made by DuPont, to a chemical called Flexipel S-22WS, made by a tiny Georgia company, Innovative Chemical Technologies, according to company documents. Roanoke executives were initially unaware of the switch, which was made for reasons that remain unclear, corporate e-mail messages show.
But only a few weeks after those reformulated cans reached Home Depot shelves, calls from customers, emergency rooms and doctors started to pour in to poison control centers and, initially in smaller numbers, to the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s own hot line...
In early June, Richard F. Tripodi, Roanoke’s chief executive, asked a staff member fielding calls at a 24-hour emergency number not to tell customers reporting illnesses that others had called with similar complaints, documents show. Doing so “may cause unnecessary public concern,” the staff member wrote in a case file.
Federal law requires manufacturers to notify the Consumer Product Safety Commission within 24 hours after determining that a product defect might present a health hazard. In this case, several weeks passed before that report was made; it was not until mid-June 2005 that Roanoke notified the agency, and only after a physician from the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver, which also had been getting calls from emergency room doctors, told Roanoke that he planned to call the commission on his own.
Commission staff members quickly contacted Roanoke. But internal company and agency documents, which have become public as a result of lawsuits, suggest Roanoke tried to play down the hazard.
Roanoke explained that the revised Stand ’n Seal formula left it with a “somewhat less chemically pungent” smell, and that, as a result, “some customers tend to use the material in poorly ventilated or enclosed spaces.”
It did not mention that a safety data sheet published by the maker of Flexipel S-22WS explicitly stated that it should not be used in aerosol form because it could cause respiratory injury. Internal company documents show that Roanoke knew that even with ventilation, the spray containing Flexipel could cause a medical reaction....
Nearly three months passed between the time Roanoke first received a report of an illness and the official recall by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a period during which dozens were sickened. They included Phillip Willis III, 73, a retired Navy officer, from Pasco County, Fla., and Thomas Kayser, 64, of Independence, Iowa, a retired John Deere machinist, who soon died from their exposures, medical records show.
The agency sent investigators before the end of 2005 to the homes of two victims, in Arizona and Iowa, and tested at least one can of Stand ’n Seal. The tests give a basic indication of what was in the product: mostly butyle acetate, an industrial solvent, and hydrocarbons, chemical compounds based on crude oil.
But the agency’s laboratory does not have the equipment needed to identify the specific chemicals present, or what effect they might have on humans, said Julie Vallese, a spokeswoman for the commission.
“There are a lot of things the agency should have,” Ms. Vallese said...