CPSC: Exploding Toilets Not Just an Urban Legend

Independence Day may have passed, but for millions, the fireworks are still ongoing – in their bathrooms.  And, no, this is not a cheap excuse for potty humor.  The Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a recall of the Sloan Flushmate III Pressure-Assist Flushing System after receiving over 300 reports of exploding toilets.  According to the CPSC, the flushing system installed in approximately 2.3 million toilets nationwide can burst under increased pressure, shattering the tank.  At least 14 people have reported impact and laceration injuries from pieces of exploding porcelain. Ouch.

The recall comes in light of several news reports over the past year of unexplained toilet explosions.  Last September, two federal employees were injured by shards of porcelain when two toilets exploded in the General Services Administration building in Washington D.C.  In March, students from the University of Chicago reported that toilets were exploding in their dormitory.  It is unknown whether these incidents are related to the Flushmate, but we imagine it may become the scapegoat for government bureaucracy and inhumane freshman living conditions.

While the CPSC did not comment on the relative severity of any such incidents, explosions are not something one typically expects from the inner sanctum of the bathroom abode.  Exploding toilets are supposed to be the product of urban legend and children of the ’90s toting M-80s (See, e.g. Problem Child).  At this time, no details are available as to the cause of the pressure build-up in the Flushmate, but we can not refrain from utilizing a few jokes to help tell the story.

If the reports of injuries are accurate, we here at Abnormal Use expect the Flushmate may be the future target of some product liability litigation.  While not enough facts are known to accurately comment of the validity of any manufacturing defect claims, it is difficult to foresee many inherent defects in the product’s design given the relatively few complaints compared to the millions of products sold over a decade.   And, as for failure to warn? We can only imagine the allegations of the well-drafted complaint:

Manufacturer failed to adequately warn that toilet may become explosive with use.

Obviously, if there are true injuries involved, this should be no laughing matter.  However, there is something about the combination of toilets and explosions that brings out the child in us all.  Now, with news of the recall and the likelihood of potential litigation, the exploding toilet is no longer the stuff of urban legends.

The Abnormal Use Guide to Pool Safety

With summer on the horizon, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a warning to users of portable pools.  According to the report, an average of 35 children under the age of 5 die annually in portable pools, accounting for 11 percent of all pool drownings.  Considering these statistics, the CPSC obviously has valid reasons for concern.  However, in our usual irreverent way, we here at Abnormal Use must question the sufficiency of the CPSC’s tips for the prevention of such accidents.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the CPSC’s tips.  Rather, the advice is more akin to a helpful reminder that breathing is essential to sustain life.  Take this tip for example:

Teach children to swim, float and other-life saving basics.  But do NOT consider young children “drown-proof” because they have had swimming lessons.

No doubt, the ability to swim is a great way to lessen one’s chances of drowning.  We understand that not all parents are ideal, but do people really consider children taking swim lessons as “drown-proof”?  After all, they are called swimming lessons – not Olympic training.  Maybe the better tip would be:

Even children capable of swimming are susceptible to drowning.  When children are playing in pools, always assume that accidents are possible.

Our personal favorite tip is one with a great deal of merit.  It is perfectly logical.  Yet, something about it seems a bit misplaced.

If you can’t fence the pool, use smaller, easier to store portable pools.  Then, empty the water ANY time you are not supervising the pool and turn it upside down or store it away.

Again, it’s good advice.  If a small pool is capable of being drained after each use, it makes sense to do so and take away the hazard.  But is this really the solution?  Reading between the lines, we know what the CPSC really meant to say:

If you choose to purchase an unsightly above-ground pool, fence it in.  If fencing is not an option, save yourself the embarrassment of having others know you purchased an above-ground pool by seeking other options.  Small plastic pools are socially acceptable for young children.  There is no shame in having your children observed temporarily playing in such pools.  But please, empty the water and remove the pools from your yard when not in use.  Teach children to clean up their toys.

Even if fencing is an option, understanding why anyone elects to purchase a large, above-ground pool is beyond our pay-grade.  If the CPSC was forthright, they would have taken inspiration from the late Mitch Hedberg:

Do not be persuaded through television advertising to purchase an above-ground pool.  Those commercials are only 30-seconds long because that is the maximum amount of time you can depict yourself having fun in an above-ground pool.  To prevent accidents and overall boredom, please seek out safer, more entertaining alternatives.

With that said, we do applaud the CPSC’s efforts.  Pools do present a risk of drowning.  With an appropriate level of care, many of these accidents can be prevented.  If you do have a pool in your yard – of any type – we refer you to the most important rule formulated by the Commission:

NEVER leave a child unsupervised near any pool or spa.

A defense of the Evos Glider Slide?

Recently, friend of the blog, Max Kennerly, himself of the famed Litigation & Trial blog, tipped us off to commercial playground equipment manufacturer Landscape Structures’ recall of its Evos Slalom Glider slide.  Apparently, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued the recall following reports of at least 16 children under 8 years old being seriously injured after allegedly falling from the slide.  There’s already at least one lawsuit against the manufacturer.  After posting his terrific review of the recall, Max informally challenged us via Twitter to defend the product.  (See here and here for those tweets.).

Well, Max, not being ones to back down, we accept the challenge!

For starters, we admit the task of defending the device seems daunting, at least initially.  The slide is narrow and shallow; it offers no handrails.  Its ladder looks like the spinal column of a giraffe.  The Evos might not be the first choice for playground equipment of the overprotective parent.  Clearly, the Evos, at first glance, offers some fodder to the putative Plaintiff’s counsel.  But are they legal ones?

There are two standards to determine design defectiveness:  (1) consumer expectations and (2) risk-utility.  According to the consumer expectations test, a product design is defective if it is dangerous beyond a consumer’s reasonable contemplation.  Here, we would assume that most consumers hope children would be safe while playing on playground equipment.  However, there is clearly a risk of injury on even the most benign playgrounds.  Children can and do fall from swings, ladders, slides, and rock walls all the time.  Of course, many of these items, unlike the Evos, are equipped with railings and other protective measures to prevent falls.   But the design hazards of the Evos are obvious to the reasonable consumer.  The harm of falling from a narrow, handrail-less slide unfortunately should be expected.

Under the risk-utility test, a product’s design is defective if the costs of avoiding potential hazards are foreseeably less than the benefits of taking some safety measures.  There is no question that Landscape Structures could have made the Evos safer.  Theoretically, the manufacturer could have widened, deepened, and added handrails to the product.  If these steps were taken, however, the Evos is no longer an Evos – it’s a normal, ordinary slide.  If the consumer wants a slide, he or she has thousands of slides from which to chose.  Here, the consumer didn’t want a slide, he wanted an Evos.

According to Landscape, the Evos is intended to “promote balance and coordination.”  We have yet to take a ride down a slide that can do the same.

Whether the costs of converting the Evos into an ordinary slide outweigh the benefits of maintaining the very essence of the product is a question of fact.  While there may be some reasonable alternative design, we are not aware of one.  In our humble opinion, if the consumer has concerns about the Evos, then he or she should opt for a traditional slide.  Like all playground equipment, the Evos can certainly be made safer.  But the design of this slide alternative is not significantly more dangerous than the rest of the playground equipment world.

Aside from the alleged defective design, there may be some issue as to whether Landscape failed to warn of the apparent dangers of the Evos.  According to a complaint filed against the company, there is one sticker on the Evos’ ladder demonstrating its proper use.  We doubt too many children are reading warning labels.  The question is whether the label is sufficient to warn the parents.  Admittedly, we haven’t seen the actual label, so we can’t comment on its sufficiency.  Assuming, however, that the label itself is an adequate warning, we have no problem with its location on the Evos’ ladder.  Some may argue that parents are not in the playground structure and lack the ability to see the label.  But think about the alternatives.  One, the label could be applied to the Evos’ “slide.”  This would make the warning visible from the outside of the playground, but how much good is it after the child is already in full descent?  Two, Landscape could make some sort of detached sign.  While it may get the word out, logistically, it seems like a bit of over-kill.

Perhaps, the onus of this situation falls on the parents.  The risks of children playing on the Evos are obvious.  But so too are the risks of small children playing and climbing ladders unassisted on other equipment.  It should be of some significance that of the 16 reported injuries, all of the children are under 8 years of age.  As with any toy, some are better suited for older children.

Let’s allow the parents to decide whether they want their children to play on the Evos.

CPSC: Beware the Dangers of Walking on Water

We here at Abnormal Use work hard to maintain our “street-cred.” We tweet. We use Foursquare. We go to concerts, preferably before you have heard of the band that we are going to see. We watch foreign films that are later (and regrettably) adapted by Hollywood, and we snarl in disdain when anyone mentions the subsequent remakes. However, despite our great efforts to remain hip and relevant, one fad has eluded us, and it was the federal government, of all things, that alerted us to its existence. Yes, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recently informed us of something called water walking. Who knew? Certainly not us!

According to this Fox News report, this new trend can be witnessed at amusement parks and carnivals. Water walking is a new recreational activity where individuals roll across the water while encapsulated in large, airtight, plastic balls. While this activity may be entertaining, it doesn’t quite rise to the level of “miraculous,” like that of a certain Biblical figure. Recently, the CPSC warned of the dangers associated with water walking, namely the potential for suffocation. Because the water balls are airtight, the CPSC advises that there is an inadequate air supply within the enclosed spheres required for the activity. In addition, the CPSC expressed concern over the lack of an emergency exit in the event an encapsulated individual becomes distressed. Two incidents of physical injury, both involving children, have already been reported.

It stands to reason that an airtight, plastic ball does not have a limitless supply of oxygen. The CPSC claims that suffocation can occur inside the balls in just a few minutes. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Charles Jones, who claims to have invented the water sphere, disagrees. According to Jones, each 6 1/2 foot water ball contains 90-minutes worth of oxygen. Without empirical evidence as to the oxygen supply, we cannot validate either claim. However, with only two reported incidents despite the numerous participants, it is difficult to envision a scenario where a water walker’s oxygen supply is actually depleted in a matter of minutes. But, hey, don’t ask us; we just heard about water walking the other day, so what do we know?

While the CPSC’s investigation into the safety of water walking continues, they have not resorted to a draconian ban of the water spheres. The CPSC report is a warning. It is merely a lesson that, despite how much fun walking on water may be, the oxygen supply inside your vehicle will eventually be exhausted. If you really want to walk on water without the fear of suffocation, we here at Abnormal Use recommend you start studying the anatomy of the basilisk (aka “Jesus Lizard”). In the meantime, enjoy your rides – albeit short ones – inside the water balls.

Cost-Effective Remedies Not Sufficient to Prevent Ban on Drop-Side Cribs

After recalling more than 11 million dangerous cribs over the last three years, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (“CPSC“) recently approved, effective June 2011, new mandatory safety standards for baby cribs and issued a ban on the manufacture and sale of cribs with drop-down sides. Childcare facilities and hotels have 24 months from the publication of the rule to institute compliant cribs into their facilities. Reports of at least 32 infant strangulation and suffocation deaths since 2000 associated with drop-side cribs prompted the CPSC’s decision.

USA Today reports that prior to the CPSC announcement over 900 incident reports were filed with 14 crib companies indicating that drop-side cribs were falling apart, injuring and killing infants. The combination of malfunctioning hardware, cheap plastics, and problems in assembly would cause the crib’s drop-side rail to detach creating a “V”-like gap and potential “suffocation zone” between the mattress and the side rail.
In response to past recalls, crib manufacturers such as LaJobi and Delta offered free “retrofit” kits to customers to immobilize the drop-side railings. While an immobilized railing deprives the user of the potential benefit of a drop-side crib, there is no evidence that the retrofit conversion kits are ineffective in remedying the safety concerns. Unfortunately, as CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum indicated in her statement [PDF] on crib safety before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, there are still “far too many parents who have not responded to recall announcements.” Even with the lack of recall response, we must question the necessity of an absolute ban which places childcare facilities in a financial quandary during an era of economic uncertainty when cost-effective measures could be taken to alleviate the potential hazards of drop-side cribs. Certainly, childcare facilities would opt for a free retrofit kit when faced with the choice of bearing the expense of replacement costs.
We here at Abnormal Use would never advocate for the continued presence of a product in the marketplace that poses potential serious injury to children. If I discovered that my daughter’s “Handy Manny Talking Tool Box” was defective and posed a serious safety hazard (besides the threat to her father’s sanity after hearing its catchy jingle repetitively), I too would become a persistent voice in the ear of the CPSC. However, a total ban on drop-side cribs only serves to alleviate an alleged design defect at the expense of the consumer.
On one hand, the CPSC is justified in its pursuit of improving crib safety standards. After all, these standards had not been revised since 1982. On the other hand, child care facilities are left to shoulder the burden of these changes when a cost-effective measure could have cured the problem. Presenting childcare facilities with the choice of either complying with the recall or bearing the replacement costs of new cribs would have protected these facilities and still achieved the desired outcome of child safety.
Through this decision, the CPSC is placing manufacturers on notice that it will not tolerate repeated massive recalls of products that pose serious threats to the safety of their users even when a cost-effective measure may be taken to remedy the design defect. Unfortunately, at this time, the CPSC decision still leaves me having to take my own draconian measures to protect myself from the serenade of Handy Manny and his toolbox.

$100,000 Civil Penalty for Importing Violative Fireworks

No, it is not quite July yet — even though I truly wish it was with all this cold weather the past couple of weeks in South Carolina — the Consumer Product Safety Commission (“CPSC”) is already anticipating next July. On December 8, 2010, the CPSC announced that four fireworks firms agreed to pay a $100,000 civil penalty for importing violative fireworks. The entire agreement can be viewed here [PDF].

Jake’s Fireworks, Inc., Far East Imports, Inc., Wholesale Fireworks Enterprises, LLC, and Pacific Northwest Fireworks, Inc. are all in the business of putting fireworks into the stream of United States commerce. From December 2006 to September 2007, these companies imported over 200,000 fireworks that violated CPSC’s regulations at 16 C.F. R. Section 1500.17 (a)(3) and 16 C.F.R. Part 1507. Section 1500.17(a)(3) requires that fireworks that are intended to make an audible sound to contain no more than two (2) grains of pyrotechnic composition.

The fireworks imported contained more than the allowable limit, which could cause serious injury or death if they exploded at ground level. Not only did the CPSC impose a civil penalty, it ordered the destruction of these fireworks within six months of their final order. The CPSC will supervise the destruction but if these companies fail to destroy the subject fireworks within the allowable six months, they will be fined $5,000 a day, not to exceed $750,000 in one year.

With the Fourth of July less than 7 months away, it seems to us that the destruction deadline may be cutting it a bit close. However, with the possibility of a $750,000 fine, these companies will more than likely destroy the violative fireworks sooner than later, making it safe for next summer’s festivities.

Safer Holiday Shopping and Playing Tips from the CPSC

Now that the Thanksgiving holiday has passed, the shopping season is officially under way! Last week, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (“CPSC”) released tips for a “Safer Holiday Toy Shopping and Playing Experience.” If you are one of those shoppers that got their holiday shopping finished at 3:00 a.m. on Black Friday, these tips come too late. For all other sane people, the CPSC’s tips are helpful to consider when shopping during the upcoming holidays.

According to the CPSC, from 2008 to 2010, both toy recalls and toy-related fatalities have declined. The CPSC attributes the decrease in recalls and fatalities with the increased safeguards put in placed in the recent years. Some of those safeguards included establishing lead paint and lead content limits, tracking imports and converting voluntary toy standards into mandatory standards.

Despite the decrease in toy recalls and toy-related fatalities over the past several years, the CPSC reported that toy-related injuries are increasing. “In 2009, there were an estimated 186,000 emergency room-treated injuries related to toys with children younger than 15, which is up from 152,000 injuries in 2005.” While these injuries may be associated with a toy, they were not necessarily caused by the toy. Regardless, this increase in injuries is a concern of the CPSC and, therefore, it released three main tips to help keep the holiday season incident-free:

1. Always choose age appropriate toys.
2. Always include safety gear when purchasing sports-related or ride-on toys.
3. Always take note of the location of play — avoid traffic, water, kitchens, and bathrooms.

In addition to the above, the CPSC recommended avoiding balloons and magnets for small children, immediately discarding wrapping when a toy is opened, and supervising children when they are charging batteries. The CPSC hopes that with these tips, shoppers will be armed with considerations when buying toys for their family members. Happy shopping!

Bounce Houses — Possible Toxic Entertainment for Children

What you see captured above is Main Street Friday in our own downtown Greenville, South Carolina. You will notice what some people call a “Bounce House” or “Bouncy Castle” featured in the photo. While all Greenville parents are happy to have a form of entertainment for their children as they enjoy the show, what they do not know is that they may be allowing their children to jump in a toxic structure.

Last week, The New York Times reported that California Attorney General Jerry Brown filed a lawsuit against entities that manufacture, distribute, or supply bounce houses used at events such as Main Street Friday or children’s birthday parties. He claims that the houses contain more than the allowable limit of lead and pose health risks to children. The Center for Environmental Health began an investigation into the vinyl used in the construction of bounce houses — the component that gives them the bounce. The results of their investigation revealed lead levels in the vinyl varying from 5,000 parts per million to 29,000 parts per million. The federal limit for lead levels is 90 to 300 parts per million, significantly lower than the vinyl tested in these houses.

Attorney General Brown reported that his intention for this lawsuit is to cause manufacturers to stop using lead-containing vinyl and/or ensure that all bounce houses have adequate warnings regarding possible lead exposure. While that actual health effects on children by jumping in a bounce house for several hours is unknown, Dr. Megan Schwarzman, a family physician at Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry, told the Times that “there was no safe level of lead exposure for children.” It will be interesting to see how this litigation progresses and whether similar lawsuits will arise around the country. While parents will be glad to be warned about the possible toxicity of bounce houses, I am sure that children will not be pleased!

For A Limited Time Only And Not Forever After

If you are like me, you remember begging your parents to take you to Burger King in the early 1980’s. You had only one thing on your mind and no it wasn’t a Whopper, chicken fries or even to look for Herb. You, like me, were coveting the free glass that came with your drink. You know you wanted the one with Jabba the Hutt or maybe the one with Wickett the Ewok. I can remember taking my prized possession home with me and religiously asking for, neigh demanding to drink from it at every meal. You can imagine my dismay when after a month’s worth of running the glass through the dishwasher on a daily basis—what was left did not even resemble the vivid bright colors of Endor. The paint on the glasses faded along with my joy. Now I know why. In 1983 they weren’t using cadmium! I’m convinced that whatever lead substitute was in the paint of my prized Ewok glass was not cadmium.

Burger King may not have used cadmium in the paint of the famed Star Wars series glasses, but unfortunately the manufacturer of some 12 million Shrek Forever After glasses did. The glasses were, for a limited time only, distributed by McDonalds. On June 4, 2010, McDonalds and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission voluntarily recalled the glasses. We here at Abnormal Use previously commented on other cadmium related news in 2010. For those posts, click here and here. It appears that the use of cadmium is more widespread than previously thought. In addition to the voluntary recall, McDonalds is offering a refund for the full purchase price ($2) plus and additional $1. For more details of McDonalds’ efforts and how to obtain your refund, click here.

CPSC v. Facebook?

Strange things are afoot with respect to the Internet presence of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (“CPSC“). Earlier this week, the government agency issued a formal tweet warning users not to “like” or “use” in “any way” any unofficial Facebook pages dedicated to or representing themselves as the CPSC. (See above for a screen capture of the tweet in question.). Curiously, the tweet reads like a formal directive forbidding any participation in Facebook’s unofficial CPSC fora. (Yes, we said “fora,” not forums. Get over it.). This stern pronouncement prompted some investigation on the part of our investigative reporters here at Abnormal Use, a site often covering the CPSC.

First, we logged into our Facebook account and input “CPSC” into the search field. Apparently, there is not one, but five unofficial Facebook pages with the titles referencing the agency. (The search results for “CPSC” are depicted above.). Note that collectively, the three unofficial Facebook pages in that initial search result have a total of twelve followers or admirers or likers or whatever they’re called on Facebook. Note also that the “Web Results,” depicted at the bottom of the page, return two links to the official CPSC site and a third to the agency’s Wikipedia entry (which, as far as we know, the CPSC has not yet warned us against).

We decided to investigate further.

The first Facebook Community Page (depicted above) boasts eleven followers. It appears to be some type of automated page which collects various Facebook status updates and posts which reference the search term “CPSC.” Facebook users who update their status or posts links including the acronym for the agency will find their posts collected on this community page.

The next Facebook Community Page is only slightly different (but it has no admirers, or perhaps it did, but the agency shooed them away with its austere tweet). Note that this second Community Page (depicted above) is dedicated to the “cpsc” (in all lower case). It’s collection of links and status updates is identical to that of the first page, but it’s group title features no capital letters. An interesting quirk in Facebook’s new Community Page system, or anti-government conspiracy? We here at Abnormal Use remain on the case.

The third Facebook Community Page (depicted above) is titled “CPSC” (in all caps) and is identical in all respects to the first Community Page save for two things: it has but one admirer and its default icon appears to be a suitcase rather than a student in a graduation cap and gown.

We also input the full name of the CPSC into Facebook’s search field and found the page depicted above, complete with a more official looking profile picture in the form of a seal. The content seems to be primarily derived from Wikipedia’s CPSC entry, though, and only one person “likes” this unofficial incarnation of the CPSC on Facebook.

Finally, we uncovered an unofficial page for the Consumer Products Safety Commission Injury Coder (Nationwide Children’s Hospital), which features no admirers or content of any kind.

And that, dear readers, is all that we uncovered.

It seems like the culprit is not some sinister villain but instead some type of automated page creation system at Facebook. Interestingly, while the CPSC has certainly dipped its toe into the social media pond, it has not established any official presence on Facebook. We see on the landing page of the agency’s official website that it maintains accounts on YouTube, Flickr, and of course, Twitter. (It even has a page dedicated to its official Podcasts, although the agency has not recorded one in some time.).

We are puzzled and perplexed.

Why the hate for Facebook? Why no official presence there?

What’s the beef against Facebook creating a Community Page for discussion of CPSC issues?

Why can’t we “like” or use an unofficial page collecting links to unofficial CPSC information?

Where on Facebook should we go for our CPSC fix?

All kidding aside, one of the advantages of using Facebook to promote one’s own agenda is that much of your audience is already there using the site for other reasons. One would think that the CPSC would want to use that site in order to reach as many people as possible about potential recalls and product information. By using that site, too, CPSC essentially deputizes other users, who have the option to forward along items posted by the CPSC to their friends.

All screen captures were taken on the morning of Tuesday, June 8.