Millions of consumer products are manufactured every year, and while the vast majority are safe, some are not. The problem for U.S. shoppers buying items as varied as batteries, toys, furniture, chairs, cars, power tools, candles and plastic products, is avoiding those that are unsafe. That's easier said than done in a world in which applicable regulations are difficult to enforce and in which the desire to make a profit outweighs the constraints of conscience and the fear of legal action. Product recalls are one remedy for the problem, but they often come too late to provide effective protection for consumers.
Most recalls, in fact, are the result of incident reports that detail product failures and design flaws that already have caused injuries or property damage. It would be far better, of course, if dangerous products never reached the marketplace. Thousands of injuries every year could be prevented that way.
That is unlikely to happen any time soon. While most dangerous products are caught before reaching the marketplace, a few manage to slip through. Don't believe it? Just pay attention to regular reports from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
So far in July - the month is just now half over - the agency has recalled at least 10 potentially dangerous products because of reports of injuries or hazards tied to manufacturing flaws and problems. The list includes:
• Folding steps stools that can break or collapse unexpectedly and cause injury.
• Toddler aqua shoes that pose a slip-and-fall hazard.
• High chairs that pose a laceration hazard to small children.
• Swing sets with manufacturing flaws that create a fall hazard.
• Rechargeable battery packs that can overheat and melt, leading to a burn hazard.
• Soy candles that produce a high flame and excessive heat that can cause the glass candle holder to break and produce both a fire and laceration hazard.
• A lamp for children that can short-circuit and spark causing a fire and burn hazard.
Indeed, several of the recall notices this month were prompted by reports of injuries and property damage. In the case of the swing set, for example, more than 1,000 incidents in which the see-saw seat broke away from bolt fasteners prompted the recall. The agency report did not detail any injuries, though it is likely some occurred. Given such a list and the short period in which it was compiled, the need for stronger product safety regulations is evident.
That's unlikely to happen soon. U.S. budget cuts have reduced the number of inspectors in the field. The current political climate makes it unlikely that additional appropriations to enforce current regulations governing consumer products, food and medicine will be forthcoming or that legislators will find the will to reform a system that works most but not all of the time. Until that will is found, American consumers are pretty much on their own in the marketplace.