Rep. John E. Moss (D-Calif.), who is sometimes called the father of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, is trying to enlist the nation's 50 state governors in telling the public what the commission had been forbidden to say: that aluminium electrical wiring may be a fire hazard in about two million homes.
Kaiser Aluminium & Chemical Corp. obtained a federal court gag order last March in Wilmington, Del., forbidding the commission from talking about aluminum wire or distributing a pamphlet it prepared warning of possible fire hazards.
Moss, who was principal author of legislation creating the commission in 1972, told the governors in a letter sent yesterday to each of them that "the need for public knowledge" led him to take up where the commission left off.
"You may want to take appropriate steps to investigate this threat to public safety in your states and to distribute information to consumers," the letter said.
The aluminum industry has challenged the commission, claiming that the allegations containtd in the pamphlet are "inaccurate and misleading." Kaiser Aluminum obtained the gag order in Delware by convincing U.S. District Judge Walter Stapleton that the commission had no jurisdiction in the matter because aluminum wiring is not a consumer product.
Hearings are set Dec. 1 in U.S. District Court in Washington on the aluminum industry's motion to dismiss a suit filed by the commission in October. That suit would require 26 wire producers to inform owners of houses built between 1968 and 1972 that those wired in a certain way may be dangerous.
Aluminum wiring is considerably cheaper than the copper wiring with which most houses arw equipped. As copper prices rose during the Vietnam War, many home builders turned to aluminum. "Aluminum wiring can be safe when properly installed with modern technologies." Moss pointed out in his letter. "Most experts believe that . . . wiring installed with the old technology used from 1965 to 1973 is the only aluminum wiring that provides an imminent hazard.
The commission's lawsuit includes affidavits from homeowners, including several in Montgomery County, who reported fires or other incidents traced to aluminum wiring. These included red-hot wall outlets, smoking lines and the smell of melting plastic insulation. The suit alleges knowledge of 500 such incidents, including a 1974 fire in Hampton Bay, L.I., that killed two persons.
The suit asks the court to require the aluminum companies to make necessary repairs in all the affected homes. One survey estimates there are two million houses and mobile homes involved.
"It's not necessary to require the house completely, but it may be necessary to change some sockets and rewire some outlets," said a member of Moss's subcommittee staff.
Judge Thomas Flannery, who is hearing the commission's suit in Washington, has disagreed with the Delaware court in ruling on a subpoena question and held that aluminum wire is a consumer product. However, the Delaware decision apparentlly is still binding on the commission. The agency said its lawyers have asked the Delaware court for clarification of the gag order.
A spokesman for the Aluminum Association said, "On the basis of more than 20 years of use and experience in use of these wires, it is clear to us that aluminum wiring properly installed presents no hazard what ever." He declined further comment on the Moss letter.
A spokesman for Kaiser Aluminum headquarters in Oakland, Calif., echoed that statement, adding that "we do not condone the dissemination of distorted materials or unsubstantiated statements concerning aluminum residential wire or, for that matter, any product."
Moss enclosed a copy of the banned commission pamphlet in his letters to the governors and also had it reprinted in full in the Nov. 3 issue of the Congressional Record. It warnshomeowners to call electrician in the event of the finding hot outlets or any other sign of trouble in order to avoid possible severe or even fatal electric shocks.