5 Things Consumers Should Know About Dangerous Products

Buckyballs Magnet Complaint
CPSC via APSmall, high-powered magnets are one of the many recalls issued by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

By Kimberly Palmer

Product recall announcements from the Consumer Product Safety Commission are often met with a mixed reaction: Some companies complain that the recalls are costly and not always necessary. Some companies decline to cooperate with recalls, insisting that their products are safe when used correctly. And some parents report feeling so overwhelmed with the constant barrage of recalls that they simply ignore them; this response is so common that it spawned the term "recall fatigue."

In a recent speech to the American Council on Consumer Interests, Inez Tenenbaum, chairman of the CPSC until last year, noted that the commission has expanded greatly in the past five years, increasing from 175 employees to 500, and made it easier to search for products with the launch of the website saferproducts.gov. The commission also opened a product testing facility in Rockville, Maryland, and the first foreign office in Beijing to look at products headed toward U.S. consumers.

A recent slew of high-profile announcements from the commission within the last several weeks, including a recent recall of bean bag chairs and warnings about the risks of small, strong magnets, renews the debate about the role of the safety commission, and how parents can best use the information it provides to protect their families. Here are five safety facts consumers should consider before ignoring the next round of recall announcements:

1. Many recalls originate from a parent complaint or reported injury.

The first sign of a potential danger is not usually from the government announcements, but from rumblings of parental concerns on advocacy websites or even blogs. In fact, the safety commission is often tipped off to potential problems from consumers themselves; the website cpsc.gov offers an easy way to lodge complaints and concerns. (Just click the "report an unsafe product" button in the top left corner.)

2. Companies sometimes fight recalls at first, but that doesn't mean the products are safe.

While companies often cooperate with CPSC in the wake of a recall and offer consumers an easy fix to make their products safer, they don't always. One of the most controversial recalls in recent years involved the powerful magnets called Buckyballs. When ingested by children, those magnets can wreak havoc on organs, resulting in hospitalization and even death. The company behind those magnets fought back, saying that the balls are not intended to be played with by children. The company has since gone out of business. But as recently as last month, CPSC announced a recall of another type of high-powered magnet, Magnicubes.

3. Just because products have been around for a long time doesn't mean they're safe.

In June, a post on the website flashbak.com titled, "8 Reasons Children of the 1970s Should All Be Dead," went viral, and the accompanying pictures made it easy to see why: Today's 40-somethings grew up largely without mandatory five-point harness car seats, SPF 50 sunscreen and the advanced bike helmets kids use today.

However, over the past five years, the CPSC has recalled a slew of items that parents have used for years, including drop-side cribs (because of the entrapment hazard), certain types of baby slings (because of the suffocation hazard) and those bean bags (again, because of a suffocation hazard). Certain types of strollers have also made the list, which is why it's important for new parents to check recalls.gov before making secondhand purchases. (Recall items are prohibited from being resold.)

4. It's not just about children's safety.

Many recalls issued by the CPSC also affect adults. One recent recall involved computer power cords that can overheat and potentially cause a fire, and another involved an adult bicycle that can crack, leading to an increased risk of falling. The commission's mission is focused on consumer safety, not just child safety, although many of the recalled products involve keeping children safe.

5. Staying on top of recalls is easy and getting easier.

In addition to looking up recalls at recalls.gov or cpsc.gov, where you can also sign up to receive alerts over email, the General Services Administration offers an app called Recalls​ for Android that includes announcements from CPSC, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture. Websites like SafetyMom.com offer parents other options for tracking the latest developments in the field. Consumers should also register new products after they purchase them to get alerts if the product ends up being recalled.

Organizations like CPSC can be consumers' friend when it comes to avoiding dangerous products -- but you have to resist giving in to "recall fatigue," because you never know when an announcement will affect you.

Kimberly Palmer is a senior editor for U.S. News Money. She is the author of the new book, "The Economy of You." You can follow her on Twitter @alphaconsumer, circle her on Google Plus or email her at kpalmer@usnews.com.

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