AKRON-After almost a year of testing, retesting-and serious questions brought up about its safety-the tire-balancing product ``Equal'' has received a clean bill of health from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The agency's verdict on Feb. 3 essentially exonerates the product and its marketer, International Marketing Inc., from allegations by a competitor that the substance, once installed in a tire, emits hazardous amounts of formaldehyde gas that could endanger tire service workers.
The controversy erupted in April 1993 when Fuller Brothers Inc., a Clackamas, Ore.-based manufacturer of retread-industry-related products, sent a formal complaint about Equal to OSHA, then initiated a widespread crusade to warn the tire industry of the supposed dangers of the product.
In what has become a vitriolic dispute laced with charges and countercharges, both Fuller Brothers and Chambersburg, Pa.-based IMI enlisted the services of independent testing laboratories to prove their cases.
David Roccasecca, assistant area director for health for OSHA's Harrisburg, Pa., office, admitted he has never before ``seen this type of vindictiveness between two companies.''
In the end, it was Clayton Environmental Consultants, hired by IMI, which produced test results that OSHA said satisfactorily closed the book on the case.
However, Fuller Brothers still contends Equal is hazardous, and is pursuing the issue in court.
According to OSHA, the amount of formaldehyde contained in Equal is ``several orders of magnitude less'' than the level at which the agency deems it would be hazardous to workers exposed to it.
OSHA restricts the presence of formaldehyde gas in a product to no more than 0.75 parts per million. Fuller Brothers claims Equal-when heated to operating temperatures within a tire-produces levels of formaldehyde gas, a potential carcinogen, nearly 700 times that limit.
``OSHA's decision to close this complaint verifies our position...,'' said IMI President Robert Fogal Sr., adding that the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for Equal that the company originally filed with OSHA ``was, and is, proper.''
Among a host of charges leveled against IMI, Craig Fuller, a Fuller Brothers owner and vice president of marketing, claimed IMI ``doctored'' its MSDS information, eliminating all reference to Equal's release of formaldehyde and hazardous by-products.
Based on an analysis of Equal, which consists of urea-formaldehyde resin, Stephen D. Paul, manager of industrial hygiene for Clayton, said the maximum concentration of formaldehyde from a new truck tire containing a typical amount of Equal is one part per million-``a level hundreds of times lower'' than what Fuller Brothers claims.
``We do not have evidence that the Equal product in a truck tire continues to break down with time as the tire is used,'' he noted, refuting another charge made by Mr. Fuller.
``The concentration of formaldehyde in two truck tires-reportedly containing 10 ounces of Equal for more than one year and driven approximately 67,000 miles-did not increase when compared to new tires containing Equal for one day,'' Mr. Paul said.
Testing included: sampling air from 15 new truck tires containing Equal and driven for eight hours; fitting workers with monitors to assess their exposures to formaldehyde when deflating and demounting tires; and measuring formaldehyde emitted from Equal samples heated in Clayton's lab.
In a meeting with TIRE BUSINESS, Mr. Fogal, Kathleen Stimler, his attorney and an environmental law specialist and partner in the Akron law firm Amer Cunningham Brennan, and Delena E. Roth, of the public relations firm Lord, Sullivan & Yoder of Columbus, Ohio, talked about IMI's battle to clear its name.
``This type of adverse publicity does no one any good,'' Mr. Fogal said, admitting Equal's sales have decreased, though he would not say by how much. IMI said the product is installed in more than 100,000 truck tires per month.
The challenge to the ``phenomenally successful'' Equal, he said, ``did not just damage our company. There are thousands of tire dealers in the U.S. alone who sell and install this product, and trucking companies and retail tire centers who went on hold, so to speak, and may have lost revenue'' when they temporarily stopped selling it.
Neither he nor Ms. Stimler would assess financial damages or IMI's cost to defend itself.
While Mr. Fogal was noncommital about demanding an apology, his attorney hopes ``our competitor has the foresight to withdraw its unwarranted allegations and acknowledge not only OSHA's finding, but make an apology to IMI.''
If IMI is expecting an apology, it may have to wait a long time.
Craig Fuller said he is not satisfied with OSHA's decision.
``We are objecting to it and are pursuing (this matter) as strongly as ever,'' he vowed. ``They're wrong....We're 100-percent confident that we're correct and we will pursue it to its conclusion.''
Last September, in U.S. District Court in Oregon, Fuller Brothers filed suit against IMI, seeking recovery of $400,000 in economic damages plus punitive damages.
The lawsuit claims IMI has ``intentionally'' interfered with Fuller Brothers' business relationship with distributors, sellers and end users of ``Tire Life,'' a liquid product marketed by Fuller Brothers which is placed in truck and other large tires to inhibit rust on wheel rims. It cannot be used in any tire containing Equal.
His company does not intend to drop that suit, Mr. Fuller said. He also will continue independent testing of Equal, maintaining that all tests thus far show Equal presents a hazard to workers.
IMI, in turn, recently filed an answer to Fuller Brothers' lawsuit and a counterclaim, alleging its competitor's actions have resulted in damages to IMI in excess of $50,000. No hearing has been set.
Meanwhile, Mr. Fuller said he's ``not through with the OSHA system yet'' and will explore various avenues of recourse.