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US Testing: igniting your pajamas for safety's sake

You're in Rube Goldberg heaven.

Metal fists bulge and tug hosiery; mechanical feet and wheels walk and roll on carpets; rain and sun machines pelt and scorch miniature roofs. A white-smocked lab technician backs through swinging doors carrying a steaming beaker with asbestos gloves. ''Hot stuff coming through.''

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All in the interest of science? Even better - all in the name of the American consumer. The huge brick monolith of the United States Testing Company contains five stories of gizmos, gadgets, wheels, gears, meters, machines, and computers that find out - for all of us - whether or not virtually everything that is made does what it is made to do.

The name on the outside of the building says ''United States Testing Co.'' But the more familiar title that rings in consumers' ears, and the stamp they see on products, is Nationwide Consumer Testing Institute Inc. (NCTI). Whatever you call it, a gold decal on glass doors informs you, ''America's Leading Independent Laboratory. Est. 1880.''

The list of what is tested in this watertower-topped warehouse just a tin-can's kick from the Hudson River is long. So long, in fact - everything you wear, walk on, drive on, sit on, eat, drink, play with, build with - that it's easier to describe what they don't do: test illegal drugs and assay jewels.

The ultimate benefactor may be the general public. The primary clients, though, are manufacturers.

They want to know, for instance, how strong, long lasting, flammable, thick, thin, abrasive, or absorbent their own products are. They use the data for advertising purposes, contract specifications, even courtroom defense should a product (a ladder or rope, for instance) fail.

Buyers want to know what they can expect from the products they are buying. Boxes? How strong are they? Lawn mowers? How long do they last? Is the blade as heavy, thick, and sharp as the box says it is? The testing company's seal on a product means NCTI says it's up to snuff.

An advertising agency may want verification before going into print or broadcast with claims. And if the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asks, ''Who says?'' it's nice to be able to show them test results from an independent laboratory.

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The US government's supply arm, the General Services Administration (GSA), takes its business here. So does Chrysler. And every seat belt in America is tested here under contract to the US Department of Transportation.

For GSA, US Testing helps answer the questions on everything from furniture to stationery. And that's saying a lot, considering paper can be tested for hardness, softness, stiffness, limpness, smoothness, roughness, porosity, and impermeability. It means using a moisture vapor permeability chamber, Elmendorf's tearing tester, a Beach puncture tester, and the Gurley stiffness meter, to name just a few. Bursting strength? You'll need some help interpreting test data. Results are measured in kilopascals. Atmospheric pressure is about 100 kilopascals.

The three key words in testing all products here are safety, endurance, and function. Take an electric toothbrush: Can the user get shocked? How many brushings can he get before the bristles turn to mush or the motor quits? How well does it clean his teeth?

A short tour here is a source of wonderment - for the awesome sophistication of some experiments and utter simplicity of others. To find the flammability quotient of a pair of pajamas, US Testing lights the pant leg on fire at one cuff to see how long it takes the flame to reach the waistband. Simple.

Will map paper crinkle or shrink over time? Hang a strip of paper from a hook , connect the other end to a miniature bubble-scale level. And wait. If the bubble moves - tugged by expanding or shrinking - the paper is faulty.

How hard is your hard hat? Place one on the floor and drop heavier and heavier weights on top until it cracks. Or drop pointed weights until it punctures. Write down the weight on your sheet. There's your hardness specification.

To measure a pollutant's effect on fish, put some in a tank full of the polluted water. And wait. If the fish live, they pass test No. 1: acute toxicity. Beyond that, test of tissues reveals danger levels for contaminants.

Cartoonist Rube Goldberg was famous for the elaborate lengths he went to in his fictitious machines that performed simple operations. Your first visit here has you guessing he must be behind some of the more inventive gadgets, many of which were designed and built here.

How good is a zipper? How many times can you zip it up and down before it breaks? Which part bursts first? The metal, the fabric, the thread?

Build a sturdy machine that can accommodate all shapes and sizes, attach a little metal hand that zooms up and down while a little counter registers each round trip, and you've got one intricate, if unsophisticated, little gizmo.

Devise machines to accommodate all the shapes and sizes of seat-belt retractors, and you've got a room full of appliances the size of washer-dryers testing one limit of one item. It seems a great length to go. But, say US Testing technicians somewhat wryly, ''It's a job that has just got to be done.''

The idea in tests with seat belts, zippers, rugs, and painted panels in weatherometer tests is accelerated wear. By sheer repetition, the machines speed up fatigue, deterioration, and disintegration to find each test product's outer limits. The limit becomes a specification and from that point on, manufacturers and buyers know what they can expect.

Now advance the scope and intent of the test and you're into more and bigger machines, even computers. If you're looking for priority pollutants -- the government's list of 30 ''most wanted'' chemicals -- then you'll need one room filled with $100,000 worth of computers and printers. US Testing has just that.

You've got some foul water or scum leaking into your basement? Or your son has found some chemicals leaching from barrels in a vacant lot? This is a job for the atomic absorption and emission spectrometer. Place a sample in the glass test chamber and in a couple hours you'll have a list of percentages of the guilty chemicals. A printer hands you the evidence on paper: bronochloromethane 0.1 percent, acrylonitrile, .018 percent; vinyl chloride, 1.7 percent . . .

It all started as a single lab to independently evaluate imported Japanese silk. Since problems with test data appeared on reports from overseas, US mills wanted to test it here for quality.

Very gradually, US Testing started to test other products the mills were concerned with: packaging material such as boxes, cartons, paper; coal, oil.

Branches popped up in New England textile centers -- Boston, Woonsocket, R.I. , Providence -- and a very large lab in Patterson, N.J.

As US industry grew, US Testing expanded through the age of plastics, electronics, automation, and nuclear energy to take on clients in every segment of commerce, industry, and government. The products they test now weren't even around the day they were formed: chemical fibers, new metals and alloys, electrical appliances, packaged foods, and cosmetics. Today the company has 31 labs worldwide as far away as Hong Kong, Korea, and Taiwan. If a US buyer wants goods from overseas, he doesn't have to wait until samples are sent to Hoboken for testing. The nearest lab will teletype results in minutes to a room on the fourth floor.

Twenty years ago the Federal Trade Commission came knocking. The name, ''US Testing Company Inc.,'' the agency said, must be changed. It didn't want it to appear that the government approved the products. A formal consent decree produced a compromise. US Testing would keep its name and long-established reputation with it, both agreed. But the stamp of approval on products must be applied by a new subsidiary. That is the NCTI - wholly owned by US Testing Company.

With the exception of 2 or 3 percent of its stock, the corporation is owned entirely by the employees and management, says Allan F. Maxfield, vice-president.

''This means that what we report to a manufacturer and buyers is an independent viewpoint of his product,'' he said. ''We're not beholden to anybody except ourselves.''

The building looks old and the inside proves it. A century-old cage elevator ascends and descends to five floors, where multicolored signs declare: Asbestos testing; Textile services division; Chemical Division; Waxes and polishes; Materials and appparel testing.

Here is modernity side by side with antiquity. Many of the labs have beakers and Bunsen burners, microscopes, cold tile floors, and eerie lighting that seem like props for a 1940s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde movie. But right across the hall you'll find plush carpeting, paneled walls, hanging artwork, even sculpture.

Walk down long, spooky corridors - some freshly painted, others not - lined with rusting compression tanks, wires, electric table saws. Push through swinging doors with red DANGER labels into unmanned rooms with the pleasant hum of expensive computers. Beyond glass dividers, women run dozens of washers and dryers in what looks like an old laundromat. They are testing colorfast fabrics and apparel shrinkage.

US Testing also leaves the building to gauge consumer reaction. Teams of questioners spend time at such places as shopping malls questioning buyers on everything from sodas to sofas. The information is useful for marketing, and in analysis for future manufacturing. For Chrysler, teams of analysts take consumers for test rides and have them fill out questionnaires on ridability, quiet, interior and exterior design.

Unlike the more well-known, nonprofit Underwriters Laboratories in Illinois (with its familiar UL seal), US Testing is a private corporation. It is one of the oldest, largest members of the 250-member American Council of Independent Laboratories (ACIL), all tax-paying profitmakers. The ACIL has a code of ethics, and labs and facilities are reviewed periodically by peer members.

Who judges the judges?

Testing laboratories are a heavily regulated affair, according to Mr. Maxfield. US Testing says it may receive eight surprise visits annually by representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration (OSHA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Federal Trade Commission, and state officials. The discovery of fraud in one of the largest testing laboratories in the country -- Industrial Bio-Test Laboratories in Northbrook, Ill., about five years ago -- led to even more controls. The FDA now has published regulations known as GLPs (good laboratory practices) and enforces them. The lab in question, and others accused of widespread lab abuse, were not members of the self-policing ACIL, executive secretary Joe O'Neil hastens to add.

In 1980 US Testing came into the public eye, testing dredged material from the Hudson River. The US Army Corp of Engineers wanted to deepen the river for ocean liners. Since US Testing found toxic PCBs (polychlorinated biphenols), the dredged material had to be dumped further out at sea than first estimated, and treated with chemicals that would ensure its staying on the ocean bottom.

Three years after they began, US Testing's net income was $5,629.81. They now have over 900 employees with gross income that exceeds $25 million. The figures need to be adjusted for inflation, US Testing will tell you. Rutherford B. Hayes was President when they opened their laboratory at 18 Mercer Street in Lower Manhattan. And the cost of a mail-order suit ran you $8. Unconditionally guaranteed.

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