What happened to recalled Flubber 50 years ago?
PAWTUCKET, R.I. — You may remember the original 1963 movie "Son of Flubber" starring Fred MacMurray, the sequel to "The Absent-Minded Professor," one of the first films with a toy company marketing tie-in.
Or the 1997 remake starring Robin Williams.
Hassenfeld Brothers, known as Hasbro, made millions of units of the gooey-flexible polymer it called "Flubber." It was a mixture of rubber, mineral oil and possibly Borax, sodium borate, according to company documents.
You can even make your own Flubber at home.
"We made flubber in our class, but we added more sodium borate to make it a bouncy ball," said Dr. Michael Budziszek, who works in the science department at Johnson and Wales University.
After Flubber hit the shelves in early 1963, about 1,600 reports of rashes and sore throats tied to the product and knock-offs from other companies. The reports prompted an investigation by the Food and Drug Administration, a lawsuit and then a voluntary recall by Hassenfeld Brothers.
Even though no direct link was found, Merrill Hassenfeld said, "We want to be 100 percent certain of the safety and health of our children."
But what to do with tons of recalled Flubber?
Back then, there was no Environmental Protection Agency, no Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. It was often common to dispose of unusable products in ways that would be considered unconventional today.
According to the 1998 book "Toy Wars" by G. Wayne Miller, the company was "...allegedly unable to dispose of it at sea..."
"It will not sink. It will float," Budziszek said.
NBC 10 went through a search of U.S. Coast Guard records but found no evidence of any attempt by the company to do that.
According to the book, the company was "allegedlyunable(to) burn it at the city dump."
"Does not burn. When you burn it, it just produces a black smoke," Budziszek said.
There wasn't an incinerator in Pawtucket at the time. The closest one was in Providence.
A search of the City Hall archives, while not complete, showed no evidence of any attempted burning of Flubber.
So where did it go?
According to the book, the head of the company allegedly "...buried his inventory...behind a new warehouse and paved it over for a parking lot..."
There was no quote in the book, so with permission from the author, NBC 10 searched his notes and audio recordings donated to the URI Special Archives Library.
The following is from an interview conducted in 1998 by Miller and then-Hasbro CEO Alfred Verrecchia, who was at the helm starting in 1970.
Miller: "Flubber was a failure. This predates you but, what happened to all that? The myth is it's buried."
Verrecchia: "Not a myth. It's buried under Delta Drive."
Miller: "It is?"
Miller: "Does it bubble up ever, or ?"
Verrecchia: "That's the myth, that sometimes it bubbles up, but it doesn't. It's buried under Delta Drive."
Miller: "How much of it?"
Verrecchia: "I don't know."
NBC 10 reached out to Verrecchia for comment. He said he has a sense of humor and was repeating the urban legend, but had no first-hand knowledge of what happened to the Flubber.
The street mentioned, 60 Delta Drive in Pawtucket, is the former Hasbro facility referred to as "Delta Drive" or the "D Street Plant."
The building was sold in 1997, and now houses a packaging and marketing company.
Letters between the Department of Environmental Management and Hasbro from 2008 show an exchange over allegations by a former Hasbro employee that Flubber was buried under a parking lot at the D Street Plant.
Hasbro denied the allegations, citing a 1997 environmental site assessment when selling the property, including soil and groundwater sampling. The company's attorneys wrote, "there is no concentration of any pollutant sampled that exceeds reportable standards and there is no evidence in any such sampling locations of any buried Flubber material"
Hasbro has won two EPA awards, ranked No. 1 Toy Company in the Climate Counts Scorecard, and prides itself on how "green" the company is today.
If Flubber was made with Borax, a naturally occurring element, in small doses it can be an irritant to some but non-carcinogenic. However, exposure to high concentrations can cause serious health problems.
"That only happens at high concentrations. When it's in Flubber, it's in pretty low concentrations," Budzisek said.
Hasbro kept its Flubber recipe close to the vest, and states tests before and after the outbreak couldn't find a cause and effect relationship with the rashes.
If it was just made with rubber and mineral oil, and no borax, it's benign, and poses no hazard.
Budzisek said he wonders if the mineral oil, a good environment for viruses, could have been the source of the 1,600 reported irritations.
So, the question remains: What happened to the tons of Flubber recalled more than 50 years ago, exact recipe unknown? Only adding to the mystery from the legendary toy company.
DEM said it is satisfied there's not an issue and closed the case. But it left the door to look into the matter further, if anything surfaces.