What You Need to Know About Product Recalls

How to safeguard your family, home, and health against faulty products.

By Janice Lieberman from Reader's Digest | February 2010
What You Need to Know About Product Recalls© BananaStock/Thinkstock

Remember last year when peanut butter was recalled because of salmonella? There was a flurry of headlines and breathless TV-news accounts. But what happens when a product tiptoes quietly off the shelf? Consumers often end up with a hidden menace in their homes—and don’t even know it.

Like my friend Heather. If a child-safety expert hadn’t checked her house, Heather would never have learned that the Roman shades she’d bought from Pottery Barn Kids for her five-year-old’s room had been recalled because they pose a strangulation hazard. “How was I to know?” Heather said. (In recent years, eight children have died, and 16 were nearly strangled by pull cords. Last December, the federal government announced a voluntary recall of all Roman shades and roll-up blinds.)

The range of defective products is astounding. In the past year, I’ve seen recalls on Nestlé Toll House cookie dough (a test sample contained E. coli), Ford cars (a cruise control switch could cause fires), Toyota cars (floor mats could cause accelerators to stick), Maclaren umbrella strollers (a hinge mechanism cut off fingertips), chenille bathrobes (highly flammable), and Tylenol children’s liquid medication (possibly contaminated by bacteria).

Because recalls are usually voluntary—except for baby formula—there isn’t a standard method for warning consumers. Manufacturers tend to rely on the media to get the word out. Some post notices on their corporate websites (but who checks those regularly?). Some might call you if you filled out a product registration card. If you bought the item from a catalog, a home-shopping site like QVC, or a membership club like Costco, the retailer may call or e-mail you—if it has your contact information. Some grocery chains, such as Kroger and Wegmans, will call customers who use their loyalty cards. Here’s how to stay safe:

Sign up for e-mail alerts. “It is the single best thing that consumers can do to protect their families,” says Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the government agency that monitors more than 15,000 types of products. Recall information will go right to your inbox. Sign up at recalls.gov.

Seek a resolution. A recall notice should include details about the next step: whether it’s a refund, a replacement, or a repair. In Heather’s case, the company told her it would pick up the shades and issue a credit.

Report a defect. Once a manufacturer is notified of a defective product, it has to alert the appropriate government agency within 24 hours. It can take three weeks or longer after that to warn the public. If you discover a defective product, call the CPSC immediately (800-638-2772), e-mail the agency (info@cpsc.gov), or fill out a form on its website. Remember to notify the store where you purchased the item.

That’s what Mitch Lipka, the consumer columnist for AOL’s WalletPop.com, did. “My wife smelled something burning,” he says. “I found the mini-flashlight my kids had brought home as a party favor on a table, actually melting.” Lipka e-mailed Target, the store where the flashlight was purchased, and was told that it would be withdrawn from every store in the country. When he checked stores in his neighborhood a few days later, the flashlights were indeed gone from the shelves. He also notified the manufacturer and the CPSC, which put out an official recall notice.

The Not-So-Great Wall

Getting rid of a defective product is more difficult when it’s part of your house. If you notice a rotten-egg smell coming from your walls, rapidly corroding wires or metal, or persistent health issues (itchy eyes and skin, nosebleeds, asthma attacks), call your doctor and a building inspector. Your home may be one of thousands built with contaminated drywall made in China. The bad drywall is turning up mostly in homes built during the 2005–2007 housing boom. There hasn’t been an official recall, but U.S. and Chinese officials are sampling the drywall and air quality in affected homes to determine the cause of the problems.

If you have a house full of this stuff, you may have to move out. “The house has to be stripped—walls, carpeting, cabinets, appliances, wiring, plumbing—down to the framing,” says construction consultant Michael Foreman, who has analyzed more than 400 homes in the Sarasota, Florida, area; 300 had the contaminated drywall.

It’s no wonder homeowners and builders have filed hundreds of lawsuits in state and federal courts. The latest wrinkle? American-made drywall may be contaminated too.

Sites for Savings

Fly.com Compare flight prices from hundreds of airlines and online travel agencies.

Managemyhome.com Step-by-step instructions on how to replace a car headlight (or taillight), tile a backsplash, teach your teen to drive, build a deck, and refinish a hardwood floor.

Petfinder.com A database of adoptable pets (they’re free or low-fee), with pictures and profiles.

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