Product Recalls

Warning: Don’t Drink from Your NutriBullet 900 Blender

By Richard Console on July 10, 2014 - Comments off

If you’re using the NutriBullet 900 blender to turn your foods into “superfoods,” you could be getting more than nutrition – and more than you bargained for. Consumer Reports found that the blades cracked in two of the devices tested during the publication’s durability test, Today reported. If you’re drinking out of the container, these pieces of sharp metal blades can be a real safety hazard.

NutriBullet

The blender is designed so users can drink from the container – but if the blades crack, you could find yourself ingesting metal shards along with that smoothie. Photo Credit: Flickr.

Predicting What’s Next for NutriBullet

So far, neither the makers of the NutriBullet nor the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) has announced a recall – yet. If history is any indication, though, recalls are a possibility. Consumer Reports encountered a similar problem with a past test of another blender, the Calphalon XL 9-speed, and the discovery ultimately led to a recall.

Even in the absence of a recall, Consumer Reports is making its standpoint clear by labeling the item a “Don’t Buy: Safety Risk.” The publication goes a step further, urging people who have already bought the device to “stop using it.” There are no reports of injuries linked to the blenders so far, but this warning could still be too late for the consumers who have already been injured by the product but who didn’t know who to report the incident to or even whether they have any legal rights at all.

Consumer Safety is the Manufacturer’s Responsibility

Product manufacturers have a duty to make products that don’t harm users, and consumers have the right to expect that the devices they purchase will be free of dangerous defects like defective and fragile blades. You shouldn’t have to worry that your blender – when used correctly – could break without warning and cut your mouth as you try to drink from the container. It’s one thing if you cut yourself while trying to reach inside an assembled and powered-on blender, and another thing entirely when you get hurt while using the device according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Drinking out of a container shouldn’t be dangerous.

Often, consumers don’t know their rights. They’re not sure who to contact when a product they’ve purchased develops a dangerous defect. They may blame themselves when it’s really the manufacturer at fault. Some consumers may just assume that the individual product they purchased is faulty, a “lemon,” and not realize that the defect they have encounters is part of a larger problem. When consumers brush off a safety hazard as “not a big deal” or dismiss an incident that “could have been worse,” they are letting product manufacturers who neglect their responsibilities to consumers off the hook.

You do have legal rights when it comes to defective products, especially when they cause you injuries. You can hold the manufacturer accountable for the harm the product has done to you and your family. So if you got hurt because of a defective NutriBullet or other product, get legal help – you’ll need it. If you had a close call, take it seriously. Report the incident to the CPSC. Your actions just might stop someone else from getting hurt.

 

Manic Monday: GM Announced More Recalls, Compensation Plans

By Richard Console on July 3, 2014 - Comments off

Car Key in Ignition

Monday was a busy day for General Motors (GM). Already this year, the car manufacturer has recalled 20,000,000 cars. Between the recalls and the investigations into why it took a decade for GM to act on its knowledge of a serious defect linked to at least 13 deaths, it seems the company has made news headlines at least once a week. Now GM has announced yet another recall, this time of more than 8,000,000 cars, along with the company’s plans to compensate the families of victims killed as a result of the automaker’s faulty ignition switches.

Car Key in IgnitionMany of the recent car recalls – and some injuries and deaths – involve parts as seemingly simple as keys and ignition switches. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.

Announcing another Recall

This latest recall extends to an additional 8,450,000 cars in North America, bringing the total number of cars recalled by GM this year to about 29,000,000, according to The Wall Street Journal. Again, we’re seeing calls recalled long after they’ve been on the road. Some of these newly recalled vehicles have model years as old as 1997, Forbes reported.

Once again, the ignition switch is to blame, at least for some of the problems. One official cause of the recall is described as “inadvertent ignition key rotation,” while others include a “possible electrical short in the driver’s door module” and “overload in the feed [that] may cause the underhood fusible link to melt due to electrical overload.” By including midsize cars like the Cadillac CTS (model years 2003 to 2014), the Chevrolet Malibu (years 1997 to 2005), and the Pontiac Grand Prix (years 2004 to 2008), the newest recall shows this isn’t just a small car problem. The flaws responsible for the recall have been linked to three deaths and eight injuries sustained in seven accidents, The Wall Street Journal reported. GM maintained that there “is no conclusive evidence that the defect condition caused those crashes,” according to CNN.

GM isn’t the only automaker plagued by recalls this year. In fact, more than 40,000,000 cars have been recalled across the United States in just the first half of the year, according to U.S. News & World Report. The manufacturer has, however, been the subject of investigations and an eight-figure fine for failing to address the deadly ignition switch problem despite knowing about the issue for more than a decade. It just so happened that GM made another high-profile announcement Monday: its plan for compensating families of victims who died as a result of the recalled parts.

A Million Dollars Doesn’t Stretch as Far as You’d Think

Also on Monday, Kenneth Feinberg – alternately referred to as GM’s compensation expert, consultant, compensation plan administrator and director of the compensation fund – elaborated the company’s policy going forward in regards to paying out personal injury and wrongful death claims related to the previous recalls. Attorneys for claimants have estimated the number of deaths associated with these defective cars to be closer to 100 than the 13 GM has so far acknowledged, but Feinberg simply said that he did not know the total number of victims, according to U.S. News & World Report. These figures don’t include victims who survived with injuries, which could number in the hundreds.

A few of the details highlighted in the announcement, as reported by National Public Radio (NPR), include:

  • There is no cap on the total cost of the payments GM will make to claimants.
  • GM will not have a role in deciding claimants’ eligibility and payout amounts, and it will have no power to appeal those decisions.
  • Claims won’t take into account driver negligence, but they also won’t compensate victims for property damage or emotional suffering.
  • Think you might have a claim? Act fast. As of right now, claims must be submitted between August 1 and December 31, 2014. Those few months can fly by quickly, and you could be out of luck when it comes to getting the money you deserve.

For families of victims who lost their lives as a result of the dangerous car defects, payouts will start at $1,000,000, The New York Times reported. While that may sound like a lot of money without context, it’s less than it seems. Consider that a 20-year-old victim with a full working life ahead of him or her – figure 45 years to retirement age – could have earned a million dollars over a lifetime just by making an annual salary of less than $23,000. For higher earning victims, a million dollar settlement doesn’t cover the income that they would have earned to support their families. That’s not including the expenses associated with a funeral and final arrangements, the potentially high costs of medical bills incurred while emergency personnel and medical professionals tried to save the victim’s life, or very real suffering of family members who no longer have the companionship and help of their loved one. Even without knowing the particulars of these cases, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of these claims result in payouts well above the million dollar starting point.

While NPR states that some payments for survivors would be expected to bring in just thousands of dollars, it’s certainly possible that those with the most serious and permanent injuries could ultimately get more than $1,000,000 in compensation, too. A surprising and startling bit of information you learn when working in personal injury law is that people who die in accidents often get less compensation – going to their estates or families, of course – than do seriously injured survivors of accidents. One reason is that people who are tragically killed don’t themselves have future medical needs to worry about.

One of the hardest things about personal injury and wrongful death cases is the question of how to put a dollar amount on something as priceless as a life or a person’s quality of life. The sad truth is that nothing can bring back the victims who died in accidents or the health of the irrevocably harmed survivors. What compensation can do is help family members through the difficult financial stresses caused by their loss – and, in cases like these, just knowing that the negligent company is being held accountable can sometimes help victims and loved ones find some peace.

 

Air Bag Recall Affects Millions of Cars from Seven Makers

By Richard Console on July 2, 2014 - Comments off

Two air bags deflated in the front seat of a car

Just call 2014 the year of car recalls. So far, 30,000,000 cars have been recalled in just the first half of the year. Massive recalls by automaker General Motors (GM) have gotten the most press, due to both the sheer volume of affected vehicles and the allegations that the company covered up potentially deadly ignition switch defects for a decade after knowing about them. Toyota, too, has recalled millions of cars. However, it seems that no automaker is above manufacturing vehicles with faulty parts. In late June, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Honda, Mazda, and Nissan – and Toyota, again – announced an air bag-related recall of 3,000,000 cars, The New York Times reported.

Two air bags deflated in the front seat of a carIn crashes, correctly working air bags save lives – but when they deploy at random or send shrapnel through the fabric of the bag and into a victim’s body, they are dangerous. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.

This rash of recalls from numerous auto manufacturers is no coincidence. All seven automakers got air bags from a company called Takata Corporation, which manufactures one in five air bags worldwide. Takata is no newcomer, having been in the air bag business since 1988 despite what The New York Times called “a spotty safety record.” Yet in the past five years, 10,500,000 cars have been recalled because of problems with air bags produced by Takata, according to Reuters. To put the situation in perspective, air bags have been a factor in the recall of at least 10,000,000 of the 30,000,000 – one in three – recalled cars so far this year, The New York Times reported. The problems are serious, and unfortunately, recalls might not be enough to get cars with dangerous parts off the road for long enough to repair the problems.

The Unreliability of Recalls

The recall stems from an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) into three reports of air bag ruptures that caused injuries. Ultimately, the investigation linked at least 30 injuries and two deaths to the air bags in question, The New York Times reported. Some of those injuries were very serious, including damage to major arteries that later resulted in severe complications such as strokes and seizures.

There’s no question that injuries like these have the potential to be life-changing. However, given the abysmal success rate of most recalls – less than one-third of recalled consumer products of any kind are ever turned in for refund or repair – there’s a good chance this recall won’t manage to get all of these potentially disastrous vehicles off the road and into dealership repair shops to fix the problem. No matter how early on they are issued, safety recalls can’t make us nearly as safe as ensuring car quality before the cars arrive on the road would.

Is Car Quality Declining?

With the dozens of recalls already announced this year, the natural question to ask is whether the quality of our cars is actually worse than it used to be – and it is, according to MSN. “The sudden surge in recalls this year comes at the same time the overall quality of new cars, trucks and crossovers has shown an unexpected decline,” the news source said, basing its statement on the annual J.D. Power Initial Quality Study. The number of reported problems jumped three percent this year from last year. In the early days of ownership, the biggest culprits in this increase were issues with vehicle exterior, heating and air conditioning, and devices used for entertainment, navigation, and communication.

Long-term quality ratings are down, too. The three-year review of 2011’s new cars indicates more problems than previous years, according to the J.D. Power 2014 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study. And then there are the serious safety defects that go unrecognized for years, even decades, as was the case in so many recent recalls by GM, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and others.

The modern car industry has more advanced technology at its disposal than ever before. There’s no reason for quality to be dropping, especially when it comes to safety. I hope these enormous recalls and the immense price tag of fixing the cars shocks the automotive industry into investing more time and money into making cars safe and well-built before they hit the roads from now on. Otherwise, we’re likely to see more preventable injuries and deaths over the coming years.

 

Another GM Car Recall Isn’t “Just Keys”

By Richard Console on June 26, 2014 - Comments off

Not Just Keys GM recall - Camaro

Earlier this month, General Motors (GM) – the automaker that has issued dozens of recalls through the first half of 2014 – announced a recall of more than 500,000 Chevrolet Camaros. This brings the total number of 2014 recalls for GM to 44 (as of this writing) and the total number of recalled cars made by GM to a whopping 20,000,000, ABC News reported.

With the sheer volume and frequency of high-profile recalls, you would think that affected drivers might be at least a little bit concerned. Yet I’ve seen some drivers dismiss the issue as “just a key problem.” It’s worth noting that in previously recalled cars, a somewhat similar issue – “just” an ignition switch problem, I guess – with similar results is believed to be responsible for killing at least 13 people.

Not Just Keys GM recall - CamaroThe most recent recall involves half a million Chevrolet Camaros with model years from 2010 to 2014. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Different Parts, Same Problems

The problem that necessitated the Camaro recall is that a driver could bump the keys with their knee while driving. Just that seemingly small amount of pressure could change the position of the ignition switch, inadvertently shutting off the engine while the car is in motion, MSN reported. What happens when the engine power cuts off? Possibly the loss of the ability to use power steering, power brakes, and even air bags. The car can become uncontrollable, and when it finally does stop, the failure of airbags means that helpless passengers have lost their last line of defense.

Sound familiar? It should. GM’s problems this year began in February, when the company first began recalling millions of cars – some a decade old – for dangers posed by faulty ignition switches. The problem with these defective switches is that heavy key chains – and for that matter, even the little bit of weight from the key fob that GM supplied with the car keys – could put too much stress on the ignition switches, leaving them vulnerable to shift position and turn off the engine while the car was in motion. The problems associated with this recall, too, were loss of control over the power steering, power brakes, and air bags. The parts responsible for the failure are technically different, but the serious consequences remain the same.

Do We Drivers Dismiss Automakers from Responsibility?

In the case of those early 2014 recalls, GM found itself in trouble after news surfaced that the company had known about the problem for a decade but never attempted to fix the potentially dangerous cars. At least 13 deaths and more than 50 crashes were blamed on the flaw. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fined GM $35,000,000. The outrage from victims’ families, safety and consumer groups, and the public was clear.

After that decade-long, deadly mistake, things are changing for the better. Government agencies are holding GM accountable. The automaker dismissed 15 employees in connection with the fatal defect and years-long failure to address it. Victims and families are being compensated. The fact that GM’s recalls now involve newer models at least indicates that instead of covering up the problem and letting it harm innocent people, the company is now trying to address defects before people get hurt. So far, the Camaro key issue has been linked to just three crashes and four injuries, all of them minor. The right time to announce a recall is now, before someone gets seriously hurt.

As a personal injury attorney, I find it concerning to think that just as an automaker is showing a commitment to prioritizing safety over pure profit, the very drivers put in danger by their mistake are instead saying, “No thanks, don’t worry about our safety. We’ll take our chances.” There may be government agencies and consumer watchdog groups, but ultimately if we consumers tell automakers that we don’t care if they risk our lives, we’re only encouraging them to lower their safety standards in the future.

 

Not-So-Safe: Recalls Are Only as Good as Our Knowledge about Them

By Richard Console on May 29, 2014 - Comments off

Pile of used tires

Considering the frequency with which automakers have recalled cars so far in 2014, you might think that the recall system was a raging success. After all, who hasn’t heard of at least one major recall this year? It seems that nearly every major car company has had at least one: Toyota, Honda, Mazda, Chrysler, Ford, Dodge, Nissan, Cadillac, Mercedes Benz, BMW, and of course General Motors (GM), with its high-profile recalls of millions of vehicles.

Yet the cars themselves aren’t the only dangers. What about recalled parts, like tires, which continue to remain on our streets long after the first announcements are issued? For months after recalls, defective tires continue to endanger everyone on the road and illustrate something we would all like to forget – that our nation’s safety recall system regularly underperforms, at times to the point of being a total failure.

Man Inspecting Car TireCan you say, without a doubt, that you are 100 percent certain that the tires on your car right now have never been recalled? Do you even know what type, size, and brand of tires are on your car at the moment? Photo Credit: Corbis Images.

A Deadly Problem

Once upon a time, a tire was recalled for safety reasons. These tires were to be replaced on vehicles and removed from store shelves. The goal was to get them off the road permanently.

But that didn’t happen. Four months after the recall, a fatal Florida accident that killed two church leaders and injured several youth church members was linked to the tires, according to ABC News. Apparently, neither the church which owned the van nor the mechanic was aware that the tire was dangerous or was supposed to be replaced, despite the recall. Investigative reporters did some digging, only to find that the dangerous, recalled tires were still for sale in multiple cities.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the incident and the larger issue of how recalled tires remain on the road, but really, should any of this have been such a surprise? “Only about one out of five recalled tires is actually returned to the manufacturer,” ABC News reported.

Pile of used tiresThe other 80 percent of those dangerous tires must be out there somewhere. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.

Reflecting Larger Recall Failures

Of course tire safety matters. Tire problems result in hundreds of deaths each year. Yet this tragic accident and the recall that should have prevented it (but didn’t) simply reflects a frightening landscape of recalls across all product types. Recalls of consumer products, too, have an abysmal success rate. Less than one-third of all recalled consumer products ever make it back to their manufacturers, according to Today. The rest remain at large, likely to harm an unsuspecting consumer.

Even with major purchases and major recalls, the success rate is slim. Take the massive GM recall of 2,600,000 cars for faulty ignition switches that could cut off power to the engine, steering, and airbags. GM is optimistic that 80 percent of the recalled cars will eventually be fixed, but more critical experts expect the number to be closer to half, CNN reported. Even if 90 percent of the recalled cars are repaired, that would still leave a quarter of a million dangerous vehicles on the road.

Why We Don’t Notice Recalls

Most people consider tires a relatively large purchase, one that costs hundreds of dollars. But what about the smaller purchases you make – things like children’s toys, over-the-counter medications, groceries, beauty products, and home items? You may not think twice about purchasing these everyday items. For many of them, you probably don’t even keep your receipt. There’s no record of your purchase and no registration on the product. If it’s ever found to pose a serious safety hazard, you won’t know about it – not unless you happen to hear about the recall on the news. By the time that happens, there’s a good chance you’ve already disposed of the packaging and couldn’t check your purchased item against the recalled item even if you wanted to.

Even if you receive a mailed or emailed notice about a recall, will you act on it? Every day, consumers are so bombarded by spam and advertising materials that it’s as though corporate America has cried wolf. Even when our companies have something legitimately urgent to say, we’re conditioned to believe they’re just trying to sell us on another product. Important notices slip through the cracks when our mailboxes are too full of junk mail.

At least some of the blame falls on what ABC News called a “badly-flawed and archaic government recall system,” but perhaps the problem isn’t so easy to solve. After all, do you want corporations or the government tracking your every purchase, even more than they already do? Short of requesting an I.D. for every single purchase, no matter how small, it’s hard to envision a recall system that would be truly effective in making sure that every purchaser of a product knows about relevant recalls. The only sure way to get dangerous products out of the hands of consumers is to stop them from ever getting to the market in the first place. Once defective products are out there, by become a danger to us all – especially if recall procedures aren’t followed thoroughly.

 

Fuel Gauge Recall Puts GM Car Safety Back in the Spotlight

By Richard Console on May 8, 2014 - Comments off

GM Fuel Gauge Recall

Automaker General Motors (GM) has been in the news a lot recently, and the troubled company has proven that bad publicity is still, in fact, bad publicity. After a massive recall of 1,600,000 vehicles for faulty ignition switches beginning in February 2014, GM has just announced yet another safety-related recall. This time, the 51,640 SUVs affected have defective fuel gauges that could allow cars to run out of gasoline suddenly while their unsuspecting operators still believe they have plenty of fuel left. Whether it’s by causing cars to stall unexpectedly, disabling power steering systems, or cutting electricity to airbags, defects like these put every driver on the road in danger of suffering serious, permanent, and even deadly injuries.

GM Fuel Gauge RecallFor drivers of affected GM vehicles, trusting the fuel gauge could prove dangerous. Photo Credit: Flickr.

A History of Recalls

In the previous GM recall, a problem with the ignition switch could shut off the vehicle’s electrical power without warning, disabling power steering, power brakes, and even airbags. Drivers could find themselves totally losing control of their vehicles, without so much as the protection of airbags to protect them when they crash. GM has acknowledged that the problem caused at least 31 accidents and 12 people deaths, but the Center for Auto Safety commissioned a study that identified more than 300 deaths linked to airbags that failed to deploy, The New York Times reported. This suggests that the actual number of fatalities related to this defect and others like it could be far more than a dozen. Though GM knew about the problem as early as 2004, the affected and potentially dangerous cars were never recalled until 2014.

The next recent GM recall concerns a defective fuel gauge. Faulty software means that the number displayed on the gauge could be inaccurate by as much as a quarter of a tank in either direction. If the gauge tells drivers prematurely that their gas tank is empty, the problem is merely an inconvenience. When the device errs in the other direction, it becomes dangerous. A driver who has no idea that he or she is about to run out of gas could easily find the car stalling suddenly in the middle of the road, unable to get safely out of the way of traffic. A resulting accident can cause very serious injuries, especially if the other car is still moving at a high rate of speed when the collision occurs.

The Cost (and the Lesson)

Certainly, GM is experiencing some tough luck, with this series of recalls one after another. Just this week, the company announced yet another recall of 59,628 of its Saturn Aura cars, this time related to a problem with a transmission cable, Reuters reported. The cost of the recalls so far – $1,300,000,000 – already has eclipsed the company’s profits for the first three months of 2014. With these new recalls looming, those recall-related expenses are likely to grow.

Still, it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for a company that covered up a deadly defect for a decade. Fixing the problem back in 2004 could have saved the company money, because there would be far fewer cars to recall and fix right now. My hope is that the big price tag will remind other automakers as well as those currently in power at GM that fixing safety problems sooner rather than later really is better for their bottom lines. Otherwise, car buyers, drivers, passengers, and everyone sharing the road with them will remain at risk while companies put profits ahead of safety.

 

GM Recall Highlights What’s Wrong with Manufacturers’ Safety Priorities

By Richard Console on March 19, 2014 - Comments off

Teenage girl (14-16) and man screaming in car

Imagine that you’re driving along on an ordinary day when something happens that’s anything but typical. Your car’s ignition abruptly switches itself off. The engine stops working. You try to steer yourself to safety, but nothing happens. You hit the brakes, but even they don’t respond. You’re at the mercy of an out-of-control car careening through an environment that has suddenly turned dangerous. All you can do is panic in the moments before colliding with one of the other cars, trees, telephone poles, or buildings that have become obstacles. The impact of the crash throws you face-first into the steering wheel. Even the airbag, your last line of defense, has failed you.

The drivers of General Motors (GM) vehicles who were involved in crashes like these – exactly how many drivers depends on who’s counting – didn’t have to imagine. They lived this nightmare, and as many as 303 people died from it, according to recent reports.

Teenage girl (14-16) and man screaming in carA faulty ignition switch leaves drivers essentially helpless. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.

But at least it only took 10 years for the manufacturer to do something about it.

Who Knew What, and When

In February 2014, GM recalled several vehicles manufactured between 2003 and 2007 with faulty ignition switches that could turn off engines, power breaks, and air bag functioning. Clearly, these vehicles should be fixed immediately – except that the parts, which TIME reported cost the manufacturer as little as $2 to $5 apiece, aren’t available yet. And they won’t be available until April.

Close up of man's hand holding car keyGM’s temporary solution? For the time being, drivers should remove all keys and key chains from their ignition keys, including the key fob GM provided at purchase. Apparently even that tiny piece of hardware can put the ignition switch at risk. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.

Just days ago, GM reported to The Wall Street Journal that it knew of the problem as early as 2001, contradicting earlier claims that the company didn’t learn about the danger until 2004, when it was preparing to launch a new model. “An engineering inquiry was opened but later closed after determining it would take too long and cost too much to fix,” The Wall Street Journal reported. I’m sure this sentiment brings great comfort to the families of the people who allegedly died because of this safety risk.

Whether GM learned of the problem in 2001 or 2004, the company had more than enough time to issue recalls and change the design, which it didn’t bother to do until 2007. GM has known for a decade or more about the danger, but only now has decided to issue a recall.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), too, has acted so slowly that judging by their lack of urgency, you wouldn’t know the defect was a dangerous safety hazard at all. The regulating body, from whom the Center for Auto Safety collected the crash data to analyze, was aware of complaints related to the current recall as early as 2006, yet claimed to have “insufficient evidence to warrant opening a safety defect investigation” at that time. Watchdog groups aren’t buying these excuses. “NHTSA claims it did not do an investigation because it did not see a defect trend… The only way NHTSA could not see a defect trend is if it closed its eyes,” said The Center for Auto Safety in a letter.

The Death Toll

GM admits that 12 people have died and 31 accidents have occurred as a result of this defect in its vehicles. But that might not be the full story. The Center for Auto Safety reported a far different number of deaths involving these vehicles in which airbags should have deployed but didn’t: 303, according to The New York Times.

Two male car crash victims in front seat with two distraught women in back seatTwelve deaths are too many. Even one is too many. But if the Center for Auto Safety is right, literally hundreds of people lost their lives in accidents that could have been easily prevented. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.

What went on in this decade-long instance is exactly what’s not supposed to happen. Cars are such useful inventions that drivers often forget how dangerous they are, but the makers of those cars have no excuse to ever neglect safety. Manufacturers should be the first to act to resolve a problem. After all, they have a lot to lose if the cars they sell develop a reputation for killing their drivers. But instead of addressing the problem at the very first sign of trouble, it seems both the manufacturer and the regulating agency chose inaction, allowing more possible accidents and deaths to happen.

This isn’t right. GM’s customers deserve better. The people driving around them, unaware that the car in the next lane is a ticking time bomb, deserve better. And if you or someone you love is a victim of a faulty ignition switch, you deserve compensation for all you have lost and the peace of mind of knowing that the people responsible are finally answering for their actions.

 

Fixing What’s Not Brakin’: Why the Death of Safety Inspections Necessitates Stricter Laws

By Richard Console on December 11, 2013 - Comments off

Inspection Station

Have you noticed more vehicles around you driving with blown-out brake lights in the last few years? It’s no coincidence. New Jersey lawmakers have noticed it, too. They’re in the process of revamping current laws, which only require that two of a vehicle’s brake lights are working at a time, even though all modern cars are required to have three brake lights. To some, it may seem like a simple problem and a silly law. Unfortunately, the problem indicates a deeper issue: a change in how drivers across the state prioritize safety-related auto repairs now that state-required inspections no longer focus on mechanical defects. Is the convenience and cost-savings of doing away with safety inspections worth a potential increase in risks?

Inspection StationNo longer do our state’s inspections stations make sure that our cars are safe to drive – which means some cars aren’t being maintained the way they should be. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Importance of the Third Brake Light

The third brake light has a technical name: Center High Mounted Stop Lamp (CHMSL). The inclusion of this equipment is no fluke, nor is it a mere aesthetic choice. CHMSL exist for an important reason that has nothing to do with style. Studies confirmed as early as 1974 that a third brake light contributes to reduction in the number of automobile accidents, according to the American Psychological Association, which states that using these devices “saves lives, property and money.”

Just how many lives and how much money? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)’s official report on the long-term effectiveness of the equipment, released in 1998, found that CHMSL reduce the number of accidents by 4.3 percent. While that may not sound like much, it translates to between 92,000 and 137,000 reported collisions and approximately 102,000 unreported accidents each year. The total cost savings is a whopping $655,000,000 annually.

So, yeah, it’s kind of a big deal.

Center brake lightCHMSL are small, but effective. The NHTSA reported that these brake lights add just one pound of weight to a vehicle, and increase the cost by only $12. Photo Credit: Flickr.

What makes that third brake light so effective? There are a few reasons. The most obvious is that the more lights that indicate a car is stopping, the more likely it is that a driver – who, unfortunately, may not be paying full attention to the road – will notice at least one of those lights in time to avoid an accident. This especially true at night, when the two tail lights are already lit up for the purposes of being seen. That third light can help a driver determine if the car in front of them is actively braking, or just has its headlights on.

Unusually-placed brake lightsIf the third brake light’s effectiveness was strictly numerical, who’s to say that there shouldn’t be a fourth, fifth, or tenth brake light? How do designers choose where to put that extra lamp – and is an unusual layout of brake lights, like this, a potential hazard? Photo Credit: Flickr.

A key part of the effectiveness of CHMSL is that center-high position. If you’re driving an unaltered passenger vehicle, sure, you can see the tail lights of the car in front of you. You probably can’t see the tail lights of the car in front of them, though. On a congested road, an inattentive driver in front of you may not notice the brake lights of the vehicle ahead until it’s too late to stop. This can create a domino effect or lead to those headline-stealing multicar pileups.

Cars stopped at nightIn this picture, you can see how much easier it is to tell that the large vehicle in front on the right – the one with a working CHMSL – is stopped than to tell that the large vehicle in front on the left, with no working third brake light, is stopped. Photo Credit: Flickr.

Timing is essential when it comes to effective use of brakes. Personally, I’d rather not leave the amount of notice I have entirely in the hands of the driver in front of me, who may or may not be texting, fiddling with the radio, yelling at rambunctious children in the backseat, or driving while impaired. That third brake light gives us drivers the opportunity to see (above or through the windshields of the car in front of us) what’s going on ahead. The invention and mandatory inclusion of CHMSL is empowering. It gives us more control over driving situations and, in the scenario where every precious second counts, it can help us prevent accidents.

That’s exactly why lax policies and laws could have a dangerous effect on New Jersey roadways.

New Inspection Policy: Safety First Last

In August 2010, the state of New Jersey made sweeping changes to how the Motor Vehicle Commission handles state-required vehicle inspections. The average passenger car – incidentally, the kind you encounter most frequently on the road – no longer needs to pass a mechanical (read: safety) inspection every two years. In fact, it doesn’t need to pass a safety inspection, period. The required two-year inspection now checks emissions only. Additionally, motorcycles no longer need to be inspected at all, and new cars aren’t due for inspection for up to five years.

The change was made primarily to save money, which every cash-strapped government, state and otherwise, is struggling to do in the current economy. In fact, we’re joining the majority. Already 28 other states and Washington, D.C. have switched to emissions-only inspections to save a few bucks. It seems that you can, in fact, put a price on safety. In our state, it’s $11,000,000.

Inspection station feeNew Jersey doesn’t charge drivers for inspection at state stations. Collectively, the policy changes, such as ending mechanical inspections and delaying inspections of new cars, saved the state more than $11,000,000, according to NJ.com. The question is whether it’s worth trading our safety for the savings. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

I’m all for funding only the programs that make a real difference to our state’s residents. There’s no point throwing money at a program that simply isn’t working, and that’s what some have claimed about the previous inspection policy. After all, only 6 percent of the 1,900,000 vehicles that the state inspected each year failed for “serious mechanical defects related to brakes, steering, suspension or tires,” the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission reported when it announced the policy change in 2010.

Let’s do the math. Six percent of 1,900,000 translates to 114,000 vehicles with serious safety-related problems. That’s right, the number of unsafe vehicles that mechanical inspections took off the streets, once upon a time, is precisely in the mid-range of the numbers of reported car crashes that having a third brake light can prevent. Yet one number is significant enough to make a mandatory across-the-board overhaul in the ways cars are designed, while the other is apparently so unimportant that it doesn’t argue for keeping a long-established safety inspection program.

Check engine lightAnd remember, that 114,000 figure doesn’t include the vehicles that owners would, in days past, take in for repairs because they knew they wouldn’t pass inspection with their bad brakes, balding tires, or glaring check engine lights. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Lost Art of Replacing Brake Lights

As of now, drivers aren’t in violation of the law as long as two of their brake lights are working, and they can’t be cited. But this law undermines the effectiveness of CHMSL. Having a nonfunctioning third brake doesn’t help drivers avoid accidents – if anything, an inoperative CHMSL can contribute to accidents by falsely indicating that a driver isn’t braking, even if he or she is. We’ve become used to seeing these third brake lights, and seeing an unlit brake light can mislead us, with dangerous consequences.

Back when mechanical inspections were part of the inspection process, a blown bulb could cause a car to fail. The owner would have to replace the bulb or risk the consequences of driving with an expired inspection sticker – which could be as serious as a $100 to $200 fine or even 30 days of jail time. Now, though, there’s no consequence for driving with a blown-out bulb, other than the increased risk of accidents that many drivers, unfortunately, won’t think about until it’s too late.

Traffic jamEven in this photo, there are at least two or three cars without a working third brake light. This is just a snapshot of what surrounds all of us during our daily drives. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.

You might view the push to create stricter laws as a direct response to the change in inspection policies and its consequences. “Since safety inspections in New Jersey were eliminated three years ago… many motorists are no longer making safety-related repairs,” reported WHYY Newsworks. If the new bill currently under consideration becomes a law, police will be able to issue a $47 fine to drivers of vehicles with only two functioning brake lights.

Proponents of the inspection policy change argued that “inspections are not necessary since many of the things that were being tested are already part of a car’s regular maintenance schedule,” according to Yahoo! Voices. The problem is that the people following the regular maintenance schedule and having their car regularly inspected by mechanics and repaired as needed aren’t the ones I’m particularly worried about. These owners were probably unaffected by mechanical inspections to begin with.

More dangerous are the automobile owners who, in the past, would neglect their cars until their two-year mechanical inspection date rolled around. Now that safety is no longer an inspection priority, do we believe that these same car owners will suddenly decide to become more responsible in maintaining their vehicles?

I don’t. Yes, it’s absolutely a driver’s responsibility to maintain his or her vehicle. However, the ones who don’t aren’t just putting themselves at risk. They endanger every person on the road with them, including our families. Blown brake lights are just the tip of the iceberg – what really worries me are the invisible problems, the ones that law enforcement can’t readily see from their patrol cars and that the average motorist doesn’t know or think to check, like the condition of brakes or tires. An out-of-order brake light might not serve the purpose of preventing accidents, but malfunctioning brakes can literally cause collisions.

To be honest, I don’t know if tightening laws on brake light requirements is the answer. The fine, though at the low end of the spectrum, could certainly be a rude wakeup call for any motorist who doesn’t know that his or her brake light is out. A better scenario would be for officers to first give drivers a warning and a fair amount of time to fix the problem. Yet an even better scenario would be for drivers to all take responsibility for maintaining their vehicle – but without the threat of a failed inspection, there’s simply no incentive to encourage the less-safety-minded to keep on top of problems and keep their cars from posing a hazard to all of us.

Woman Receiving Speeding TicketWill the threat of a $47 fine encourage drivers to replace their bulbs? And is such a fine fair, considering that you can’t see your own brake lights when you’re driving to know that your light is out? Photo Credit: Corbis Images.

As a driver and taxpayer, sure, I see the benefits of cost savings and convenience. With fewer features to check, inspections take less time and lines move more quickly. The value of saving $11,000,000 speaks for itself. As someone who spends every day working with accident victims, though, I have to admit that there’s something disturbing about the notion that we don’t need mechanical inspections. I care about the environment as much as the next person, but doesn’t the fact that we prioritize emissions checks over safety checks say something about our complete denial of how dangerous our state’s roads can be?

 

Deadly Hazards in Your Home: What You Don’t Know About Product Recalls

By Richard Console on April 1, 2013 - Comments off

Toxic exposure. Biting dolls. High-powered magnets capable of obstructing or tearing through parts of the human body from the inside. Gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), better known as the “date rape drug.”

They could all be in your child’s toy box.

Each year, the United States Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) recalls hundreds of dangerous products in its quest to protect consumers. Children’s products, such as toys and baby furniture, are recalled at an alarming average rate of twice per week, non-profit organization Kids in Danger reported – and this is just one of the more than 15,000 categories of products that this government agency regulates.

Jumbled toys

As a responsible parent, you know to read and follow age guides on toys and watch your children during playtime. Unfortunately, that’s not always enough to keep your child safe – and that’s why the government steps in to stop defective products from endangering your family. Photo Credit: Flickr.

Though we hear about products being recalled just about every day, the consumer product recall process remains a mystery to many Americans. We assume that the items we purchase off of store shelves have been regulated and proven safe before they ever make it into our shopping carts, much less our homes. Yet the CPSC itself reports that the injuries, deaths, and property damage caused by hazardous consumer products add up to a whopping $900,000,000,000 a year.

We Are Not As Safe As We Think We Are

Defective products aren’t part of some new trend, but instead a tragic continuation of more than a half-century of manufacturing dangerous products. Consider the following:

  • Hammocks capable of strangling infants: Though specifically designed for babies, these products killed a dozen infants between 1984 and 1995 and injured many others.

Baby Hammock

A key problem with some mini hammocks is that they didn’t have spreader bars to keep the ropes from collapsing and tangling, potentially strangling babies. Photo Credit: Flickr.

  • Baby boats that could cause your child to drown: A number of these inflatable floats manufactured from 2002 through 2008 could tear and send helpless infants plunging into the water. The CPSC received 31 complaints of such instances in which babies could have drowned (thankfully, none did). In October 2012, the manufacturer officially agreed to pay $650,000 in fines for failing to adequately inform the CPSC of the incidents – it turns out that the company knew of the danger for years but continued to produce and market the hazardous product to unsuspecting families across America. “Aqua-Leisure was aware of at least 24 consumer complaints regarding several models of inflatable baby boats since the 2001 recall but did not adequately inform the CPSC until May 2009,” the CPSC report stated.

Baby float

While it’s lucky that no infants actually drowned as a result of dangerous baby boats, it is simply inexcusable for companies like Aqua-Leisure to continue endangering children after they become aware of the problem. Photo Credit: Flickr.

  • Poisonous toys: When tested, various toys from card games to action figures contained high levels of toxic chemicals, such as lead. A 1951 science kit called the U-238 Atomic Energy Lab even included uranium, a substance known to be toxic, according to the Banned Toys Museum.

Lead soldier

Toys aren’t made from lead anymore, like this soldier, but your child’s toys may still contain unsafely high levels of these toxic chemicals. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

  • Aggressive dolls: Doll attacks aren’t just for horror movies. In the mid-90’s, the beloved Cabbage Patch Kids made one Snacktime Doll that took a bite out of children’s fingers. The doll’s motorized mouth, which would theoretically allow it to “chew” plastic snacks, had no off switch. When young, inquisitive children put their fingers too close to the doll’s mouth, or if an older child accidentally got his or her hair too close to the opening, the doll could chew hard enough to rip hair out of a child’s scalp or injure fingers. In 1997, the manufacturer, Mattel, voluntarily recalled the toy and offered full refunds to any of the 500,000 consumers who owned the doll, the CPSC reported. Soon after, another dangerous doll was recalled. The flying Sky Dancer dolls made by Galoob Toys and Hasbro caused 150 reported injuries, such as broken teeth, facial cuts severe enough to require stitches, eye injuries, and one concussion. In June 2000, the CPSC announced that the manufacturer was recalling 8,900,000 of the toys.

cabbage patch dolls

Cabbage Patch Kids have long been favorite toys. Some have even been handed down through generations. The problems with the Snacktime Kids dolls show that even companies with good reputations may sometimes fail to anticipate safety hazards. Photo Credit: Flickr.

  • Magnets that can cause deadly internal damage: A couple little magnets can be a big deal inside the human body. The CPSC has repeatedly been forced to issue recalls on toys containing magnets. “If two or more magnets are swallowed, they can link together inside a child’s intestines and clamp onto body tissues, causing intestinal obstructions, perforations, sepsis, and death,” reported the CPSC. “Internal injury from magnets can pose serious lifelong health effects.”

magnet toys

Kringles Toys and Gifts is just one of companies that has manufactured magnetic toys that turned out to be problematic. Photo Credit: Flickr.

  • Toxic when wet: Watching your apparently healthy child get dizzy, vomit, and then slip into a coma, requiring immediate hospital care, has to be one of the most terrifying experiences a parent can imagine. In the case of some children who suffered these injuries in 2007, gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB) was the culprit. A toy called Aqua Dots, essentially a youngster’s craft project kit, was designed for use while wet. Unfortunately, chemicals used to make the product would become GHB if they were swallowed (which has been known to happen with young children). Due to its memory loss-inducing effects and ability to cause unconsciousness, GHB earned a reputation as a date rape drug, according to CNN. It’s so toxic that two children whose families reported severe illnesses had to be hospitalized after swallowing the beads and suffering a coma. In November 2007, the CPSC announced that the manufacturer was recalling 4,200,000 of the kits.

aqua dots

Because really, why shouldn’t we expect our children’s toys to be contaminated by toxic substances that criminals use to commit horrible crimes? Photo Credit: Flickr.

These are only a handful of the most shocking recalls. That a company could use substandard chemicals, as in the case of Aqua Dots, or knowingly continue to sell defective products, as is allegedly the case with Aqua-Leisure’s baby boats, is not just careless but completely unacceptable. As parents, our most essential duty is protecting our children. There are enough dangers in the world without having to worry about serious safety hazards hidden inside their toys.

How the Recall Process is Supposed to Work – and How it Actually Works

How do you think the process of manufacturing consumer products works? Do you think products are all tested exhaustively before you take them home to your family? Do you believe that products are only allowed to be on the store shelves after they have already been determined safe?

Unfortunately, no – not exactly.

“While plenty of products have turned out to be mediocre or inferior, some have malfunctioned so severely that catastrophe and disaster ensued,” wrote financial blog BillShrink.com.

While manufacturers are required to do some form of safety testing before putting a product on the market, that testing may not be as rigorous or consistent as we consumers would like it to be. “At this time, the Commission has not issued a regulation mandating the general requirements for a ‘reasonable testing program’ for all general use (non-children’s) consumer products,” the CPSC reported. It does, however, specify that children’s products should be tested by a third party. This requirement may offer our families some protection, but not nearly enough. The third-party tests make sure that the product is in compliance with existing laws and regulations, but they are not exhaustive procedures, and they often do not determine every possible problem that could occur.

Worried businessman

Why are companies so reluctant to issue recalls, even when they see that a product is dangerous? Perhaps because the average recall cost $540,000 as of 2006 – “twice that of the average product litigation settlement,” reported legal directory HG.org. Photo Credit: Flickr.

“Sometimes a company will find a flaw in their own internal testing,” wrote Kids in Danger. “Other times, unfortunately, it is found when a child is injured or killed.” You would like to think that as soon as even one tragic injury or death occurred because of a defective consumer product, it would be taken immediately off the market.

You would be wrong. This is the reason that we see multiple cases of serious injuries and deaths for the same products. This is the reason that hazardous products linger on the shelves and put our families at risk for years.

Lawn Dart

It’s illegal for consumers to resell or attempt to resell products that have been recalled for safety hazards, like these lawn darts. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

“The CPSC has come under repeated criticism for failing to protect the public,” acknowledged political website AllGov.com. Because the federal agency is controlled by government funding, critics have argued that politics play a role in its activities. Additionally, the CPSC must strike the balance between allowing manufacturers to get away with making unsafe products and putting them out of business through overcautiousness. “In an increasingly dangerous world, the CPSC finds that it must walk a fine line when legislating safety,” according to WiseGeek.

In fact, in 2007, Illinois representative Bobby Rush pushed for “an investigative hearing on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s sluggish response to warnings about a dangerous toy that later killed a child,” the Chicago Tribune wrote. “Consumers had warned the CPSC about the dangers of the aspirin-size magnets falling out of Magnetix toys, but the agency failed to act until after the 2005 death of a suburban Seattle toddler.” In other words, the Chicago Tribune alleged that the agency acted too late.

Magnetix

They may look harmless enough, but these Magnetix toys killed at least one child and caused internal injuries to at least 27 others, the CPSC reported. If the magnets came detached from the blocks, as happened in 1,500 reported cases, they posed a real hazard to children who might swallow them. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

During yet another controversy in 2009, CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum admitted that the federal agency “‘hasn’t been acting as quickly as it should’ on crib safety problems,” NBC News reported. In this case, too, consumers had reportedly been notifying the CPSC of the dangers of drop-side cribs for years before the agency finally took action – 110 incidents later.

Since these cases, new regulations and procedures have come into effect to help make the process of getting dangerous products off the shelf sooner rather than later with what the CPSC calls the “fast-track consumer product recall program.” In this program, “for example, procedural steps that have long been part of traditional product recall logistics are eliminated,” explained ExpertRecall.com, including “a preliminary determination investigation that can actually take several months to complete.” The new program could go a long way toward making us all safer, especially if consumers do their part by reporting incidents or suspected safety hazards to the CPSC right away.

CPSC seal

The fast-track program “speeds up the recall process and gets more dangerous products out of people’s homes, while saving manufacturers and taxpayers time and money,” ExpertRecall.com reported. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Why Recalls Don’t Do Enough to Protect Us

All the government protection in the world can’t help us if we don’t know how to find out about the dangers.

“Government has a role in ensuring product safety,” Popular Mechanics wrote, “but the bottom line is that a recall – whether or not the product is dangerous – is useless if nobody hears about it.” Unfortunately, this is all too commonly the case. Of all consumer products recalled for safety reasons, fewer than one-third of any individual product is ever returned, reported Today by NBC News. In many cases, the number of returned recalled products is lower than 10 percent of the total items sold. “If you happen to have bought a recalled product, chances are it may still be lurking in your home,” according to Today.

burned foot

An example: Almost 400 incidents, including burn injuries, were associated with furnaces recalled by the CPSC in February, 2012 – but 93 percent of those incidents took place after the recall was announced, according to TIME. This means that people either weren’t aware of the recall or chose to use the product anyway. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

This is a serious issue. Many consumer products have been on the market for years before a recall occurs. They have often been sold to hundreds of thousands, or sometimes even millions, of customers. Because the CPSC regulates so many different types of products, it is at once trying to alert Americans to dangers in such big-ticket purchases as kitchen appliances and unmemorable purchases as children’s toys that cost $10 or $20. And while most households may hold onto the documentation for their dishwashers and refrigerators, you’re probably not saving the receipt for that doll for the next ten years.

recall notice stove 2009

If you registered a large appliance, like the stove that was included in this 2009 product recall, for warrantee or other purposes, you may have a notice like this sent to you in the event of a recall. When it comes to everyday purchases, though, you’re on your own – which means you might not know of a safety hazard in your home. Photo Credit: Flickr.

All this means that, once a real safety concern comes to light and the CPSC thoroughly investigates it and finally convinces the manufacturing company to issue a recall, you may not even know if you have the dangerous product in your home. Your family remains vulnerable to danger with every use. You may pass the item down through the family, so that the already defective toy, baby chair, or game is becoming consistently less well-maintained (and less reliable) and endangering new victims.

Maybe you’ll be one of the lucky ones, and never need to know about the risks. But with the health of your children and your family at stake, is it really worth the gamble?

Protect your family by being proactive. To find out about all recalls, including consumer products, visit http://www.recalls.gov/.

 

Answering to Us: How Consumer Efforts Get Dangerous Products off the Market

By Richard Console on March 13, 2013 - Comments off

Allergy-increasing food dyes. Cancer-causing dairy products. Canned soups overloaded with chemicals that mimic powerful human hormones. All of these products have been available on supermarket shelves across America, and all of them have been alleged to contribute to health dangers. Though the federal government hasn’t stepped in, many such products have been changed and their potentially dangerous ingredients removed from the market – and all because ordinary consumers took a stand.

Angry Woman StirringIf you have ever felt like this after learning that a company has included unnecessary and potentially hazardous ingredients in your family’s food, you could be one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who contributes to making a difference. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.

Looking for Help in All the Wrong Places

Too often in the case of defective or hazardous products, we look to the government to protect us. Yet the process of changing federal regulations in order to get hazardous products off the market is often a lengthy one. Between bureaucratic delays, waiting periods, and complex product testing procedures, removing potential safety hazards related to products can literally take years.

In fact, until the Food Safety Modernization Act was passed in January 2011, the FDA didn’t have the authorization to require that companies recall their products, and consumers were instead forced to rely on companies to comply with FDA requests to issue recalls, according to Vetri-Science Laboratories. Even now, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that the FDA must first gather sufficient data to conclude that the problem is significant enough to warrant a recall and allow the manufacturers of potentially hazardous products to issue recalls voluntarily, as well as allowing these manufacturers to dispute any government-imposed recall. The FDA has taken such heat for failing to prevent unsafe medical devices from entering the market – and, more alarming, patients’ bodies – that “a panel of medical experts said the government should abandon its system for approving most medical devices in the U.S., because it offers patients no assurance of safety,” ABC News reported in July 2011.

Food coloring is placed in a vessel, chemistry labMany consumers mistakenly believe that products are taken off the market by the FDA as soon as a potential safety hazard becomes apparent. In reality, the process is a slow one – and it could be your family suffering the consequences. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.

What all of this means is that, in the event that a product is truly dangerous, steps taken to rectify the problem are almost entirely reactive. Not until January 2013 did the FDA finally release drafts of regulations that, if enacted, would allow the agency more authority to prevent outbreaks of illnesses due to contaminated food, TIME reported. Though this is a step in the right direction, it has come after a full year’s delay, and it is still not enough to protect the American people. When it comes to ingredients that aren’t contaminated with salmonella, E. coli, or another foodborne illness but are still equally dangerous with long-term use, these new regulations are unlikely to help. The first victims of a hazardous product or ingredient have been hurt long before the FDA even begins the convoluted process of intervening, and in the meantime, more people get hurt – people like ourselves and our children.

The Role of Social Media

Luckily for consumers, FDA regulation is not the only way to hold companies accountable for the ingredients they use in their products. “An increasing number of petitioners have taken on food companies with help of the Internet,” reported CBS News. As opposed to the convoluted process of waiting for government intervention, the pressure from consumer outcries and backlash can grow almost exponentially, even overnight. Ultimately, enough of this pressure can force the hand of companies that might not voluntarily take the most safety-minded courses of action.

These corporations answer to us consumers, not because they are legally obligated to do so, but because we have the economic and public power to impact their sales and reputations – and that’s good news for consumers, because it means these companies are more likely to produce safer products in the future.

“You can figure out what customers want very easily,” expert Doreen Lorenzo told Discovery’s Curiosity.com, arguing that social media has altered the process of product development in its entirety. Customers willingly and vocally tell companies what they do and, perhaps, more importantly, do not want in their products. Social media has made this interactive customer relationship more accessible and visible.

A protesting group of people in the streetSocial media allows us to convey this sentiment (Photo Credit: Corbis Images) just by doing this:

Young Woman Using Laptop in Kitchen(Photo Credit: Corbis Images).

While many companies are embracing this free business guidance so that they do not waste time and expenses on developing unpopular new products, consumers face a much greater struggle trying to change existing products. Is it because companies shy away from change, fearing that any alteration of a popular product could jinx its future success? Is it because an existing fan base will fight back against any announcement of change? Or is it because, when it comes to iconic food products specifically, companies and consumers alike are thinking with their brains, their hearts, and their stomachs?

A Cheesy Example

Perhaps the recent social-media-based consumer effort to make headlines is the quest to cut potentially dangerous dyes from Kraft’s packaged boxes of macaroni and cheese.

Bowl of mac and cheeseSee the unnaturally bright orange-yellow color? That’s not the cheese turning your pasta that shade. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The uproar began on March 5, 2012, when mothers and nutrition bloggers Vani Hari and Lisa Leake posted a Youtube video explaining their concerns about food dyes yellow #5 and yellow #6 and urging others to sign their petition to convince Kraft to remove the additives from U.S. packages of macaroni and cheese. Due to serious concerns about safety, these dyes are already banned in many European countries, and versions of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese sold overseas do not contain the allegedly harmful products.

The harm of using yellow #5 and yellow # 6 dyes is still being debated, but “the Mom bloggers believe that these dyes are harmful to children and may cause hyperactivity, asthma, allergies, and migraines,” CBS News reported. “Yellow Nos. 5 and 6 can cause hypersensitivity, or allergic reactions, and contain carcinogens called Benzidine and 4-amino-biphenyl,” the report continues, citing the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s study Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks.

Pot of macaroni and cheeseDoes mac ‘n’ cheese really need to be unnaturally yellow to be appetizing? Can’t we just enjoy other aspects of the dish, like the delicious taste? Photo Credit: Corbis Images.

Hari and Leake’s video went viral and the cause captured nationwide attention from social media users and major news media such as ABC News. On March 5, more than 2,000 people had signed the petition. By the next day, the number of online signatures had jumped to more than 17,500. March 7 brought the number of supporters to 30,000, and by March 10, more than 200,000 Americans had signed the petition. Hari and Leake may have taken little steps – an online video shorter than three minutes long and a simple blog post – but the outpouring of public support for their demand proved that social media allows you to think big and make a huge impact even with small actions.

Not everyone is on Hari and Leake’s side, though. “In America’s food wars, nothing is safe anymore, not even the venerable Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, the stovetop staple of children, college students and single men around the world,” lamented The Washington Examiner. While so many Americans have been eager to learn about the dangers and call for the removal of the additives, others take a different perspective.

The “If You Don’t Like a Product, Use Something Else” Argument

Our nation was founded on the basis of certain rights, and along with that right to free speech and freedom of choice goes the opportunity to purchase, eat, and feed our families as we so choose. For some, the push to remove yellow dyes from Kraft Macaroni & Cheese packages comes across as a way of stepping on this right. “If you don’t like the yellow dyes, don’t buy the food,” they argue.

Woman shopping in a supermarketYes, you can check the labels on every food product you purchase – but should you have to? Photo Credit: Corbis Images.

Why do people like Hari and Leake feel a need to make the matter a national movement rather than a personal choice? Perhaps because the only way to make a change is by making a stand.

Does Geography Impact Consumer Safety?

A major point that Hari and Leake are fuming over in this instance – the same point that empowered consumers everywhere make in a variety of cases – is the difference between product ingredients over various geographical locations. When governments do regulate products, their procedures are theoretically based on the same science, yet their regulations only extend as far as national boundaries.

“The point is the food industry has already formulated safer, better products, but they are voluntarily only selling inferior versions of these products here in America,” wrote Hari, author of The Food Babe and contributing writer for Leake’s blog 100 Days of Real Food, about the Kraft Macaroni & Cheese petition.

Consumer Empowerment and Successful Campaigns

Whether or not Kraft alters the mac ‘n’ cheese recipe to cut additives, the age of consumer empowerment has already brought massive changes within the food and personal care product industry. Just a few of the highlights include:

  • Campbell’s soup is now BPA-free, according to Forbes. The chemical, which mimics estrogen, was associated with later “hyperactive, depressive, and anxious behavior” in female children born to mothers who consumed BPA during pregnancy. Between the efforts of advocacy group Breast Cancer Fund and public backlash from consumers, the pressure to remove BPA convinced Campbell’s to cut the ingredient.
  • Monsanto, which supplies dairy products to such well-known establishments as Starbucks, no longer exposes cows to artificial growth hormones, according to The Organic Consumers Association.
  • PepsiCo removed brominated vegetable oil (BVO) from Gatorade sports drinks, according to CBS News. More than 200,000 people signed an online petition to discontinue use of the flame-retardant material that is already banned in other nations.
  • Starbucks no longer uses cochineal extract to color pink and red foods and beverages, according to CBS News. Though the FDA approved the use of the additive, consumers were outraged and disgusted to learn that the coloring was essentially made from crushed beetles.
  • Johnson & Johnson discontinued the use of carcinogens in personal care products, according to The Green Life. In August 2012, longstanding public outcries led the manufacturer to officially announce that it would discontinue the use of cancer-causing ingredients such as formaldehyde and parabens, as well as other unnecessary chemicals and preservatives, from such popular brands as Neutrogena and Listerine.

Mother feeding her daughter (21-24 months) with soupWhen consumers take a stand, you can feel relieved knowing that food and personal care products are being made safer for your whole family. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.

The ‘Dark Side’ of Consumer Backlash

There is one danger to consumer empowerment. Having power without having information is useless at best and dangerous at worst. That’s why it is more important than ever that we as consumers become educated about the products we purchase and their potential effects on our bodies, our lives, and our families.

The Internet provides a wealth of opportunities to endorse initiatives that are wasteful or downright ridiculous. And while it’s fine to sign a petition all in fun – like the one demanding that the U.S. government research and create plans to build a real-life Death Star, a la Star Wars – not every absurd proposal is an innocent joke.

Did you know that a chemical called dihydrogen monoxide, often found in food products and everyday items such as Styrofoam, has been determined to corrode metals, exist in cancer tumors, and cause death if inhaled? Did you know that the term dihydrogen monoxide is really a fancy name for water? The popular hoax that warns people of the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide and urges them to call for a ban on the chemical has been floating around on and off the Internet since at least 1988. While the worst that can come from such a proposal is the potential for social embarrassment, it illustrates that even concrete facts can be distorted and misrepresented to convince consumers to take uneducated action.

Group of Young People with Protest SignsWhat exactly are you protesting or petitioning about? If you don’t take the time to educate yourself, the truth is, you might not be sure. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.

There’s no denying that the Internet is still ambiguous territory where anonymity and the power of immediate self-publishing of information allow anyone to be virtually anything they want. It is becoming increasingly easier to be an expert, and when these self-appointed authorities have an agenda to push, the empowerment of uneducated consumers becomes dangerous.

Being Empowered – and Educated

Writer Alan Moore once said, “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.” He based the well-known quote off of the writing of a famous historical figure. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”

For modern consumers, though, the word “government” should be replaced with “companies.” Unscrupulous corporations have become a main source of fear. We are just well-educated enough now to know that some companies don’t want us to be educated. We no longer trust the businesses that built our economy to put our best interests first, understanding instead the likelihood that quick profits will trump responsibility – unless we do something about it.

We shouldn’t have to be afraid to use the products on our retail store shelves. We shouldn’t have to question what a food or cosmetic will do to our health or whether these products will harm our families. Becoming an educated consumer takes time and commitment, and companies may use tricky tactics, like intentionally confusing language, to make the process more difficult. Without education, though, there is no true empowerment. This means take a moment to read labels, research ingredients, and fact-check the claims cited by online “experts.” Your health and your family are worth the few extra minutes it takes to make sure the products you’re buying are the safest possible purchases.

 

     The service at Console and Hollawell was excellent and outstanding. I was treated very warmly and made to feel like I was one of their only clients. Everybody made it seem like I was their... (more)

     Rick Console made me feel like I was a part of his family. He had my problem resolved quickly and effectively. I could call him day or night and he would always be there. He was extremely reasonable and... (more)

     Being raised a “do it yourself” kind of person, I attempted to handle my situation myself, I bought the “book”, and played the game with the insurance company, and true to form I ended up... (more)

     Everyone at Richard Console’s office was helpful, pleasant and professional. The staff helped me with my auto accident. I was hit by a drunk driver and it was a very stressful time in my life... (more)

     I am very pleased with the way your office treated me as a client when handling my case. I have always found Mr. Console and his staff to be extremely professional. It is important to me to have an attorney... (more)

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Console & Hollawell’s main goal is to achieve the best results possible for our clients. The below results are only a partial list of our many successes. Click on the results for more details about the case.

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Assisting Local Accident Victims Throughout New Jersey & Pennsylvania since 1994
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