The Fallout from Fire Pots Continues, Will Regulations Follow?

On July 4, three people were severely injured in Del Mar, California, when a firepot exploded as it was re-fueled, spraying the viscous alcohol-based gel on victims sitting less than 10 feet away.

According to a July 12 report in the Del Mar Times newspaper: “One of the victims suffered third-degree burns over 50 percent of their body and had to be transported via helicopter to a hospital. The other two victims each suffered second and third degree burns over 20-30 percent of their body and were taken to the hospital via ambulance.”

In December 2011, a luckier consumer reported to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s public consumer complaint database, SaferProducts.gov:

“I purchased Firegel pourable Citronella from Bed Bath and Beyond. I went to pour some more in my fire pot and I guess it was still hot. The gel shot out, caught the bottle of firegel on fire and caught my patio chair on fire. Luckily it did not get on my skin and I put the lid on the bottle and it went out. I was also able to stomp my chair out but it was ruined.

Despite a total of 15 companies yanking the product of its shelves, and September 2011 announcement that nine manufacturers and distributors had recalled fire pot liquid fuel gel, fire  pots and their contents continue to represent a danger to consumers. And, the spectacular fallout from a patio ornament that had debuted about three years earlier continues to settle over the business, litigation and regulatory landscapes.

This week the CPSC announced its 2013 operations plan. Within the planning document is a brief mention that the agency would continue its technical review of the safety of fire pots and fuel gels in support of a potential rulemaking. In December 2011, the agency published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, but took no further regulatory steps this year. In several speeches, commission Chairman Inez Tennenbaum has noted. “Our rulemaking is exploring the question of whether it is possible to make gel fuel safe for consumers to use...”

Office Depot Declines to Launch Recall for a Chair that Launches Occupants Backwards

Riddle: What’s the difference between two office chairs made by the same Chinese company, sold by the same big box retailer, with the same registration number, with the same bad weld that sends users flying backwards when it breaks?

Answer: One was recalled in April 2012 and one wasn’t.

Bonus Answer: The chair that wasn’t recalled actually garnered more complaints than the one that was!

This is a riddle not easily solved – especially by consumers unfortunate enough to have purchased the Gibson Leather Office Chair from Office Depot. In March 2010, Nancy Losey of San Antonio, Texas was sitting in a Gibson Leather Office Chair, manufactured by the Wonderful Year Furniture Company, imported by Swinton Avenue Trading Company, based in Boca Raton, Fla, and sold exclusively by Office Depot, when it suddenly collapsed. The seat plate underneath her chair had separated from the chair base, because of a weld failure at that juncture. Ms. Losey fell to the floor and broke her hip, requiring a hip replacement surgery.

The Gibson Leather Office Chair has the same design and product registration number as the Office Depot Biella Office Chair, which is manufactured by the Wonderful Year furniture company, imported by Swinton Avenue Trading Company, based in Boca Raton, Fla, and sold exclusively by Office Depot. But in April, Swinton Avenue Trading Company was forced to recall 307,000 Biella chairs. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission press release, Office Depot had received 11 reports of the breaking chairs and falling consumers with injuries. Consumers could go to Office Depot for a $55 store card – the price of the Biella chair – to replace it or to be used for other Office Depot merchandise.

In October, Attorney Paula Wyatt, who represented Losey in a product liability case against Swinton Avenue Trading, wrote to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission alerting them to the similarities between the Gibson and the Biella. Same product registration number, same bad weld in same critical place. A couple of key differences: Office Deport got more complaints – 18 – about collapsing Gibson chairs between 2009 and 2010, and the Gibson retailed at $39.00.

Whatever Happened to Company Doe?

For now, Company Doe – the first to launch a court challenge against the publication of a complaint in saferproducts.gov, the publicly accessible database mandated under the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, will remain anonymous. A July ruling by a U.S. District Court judge, made public yesterday, maintains the seal on any records that identify the company, the product or the facts of the dispute.

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CPSC Considers Slight Change to Policy of Announcing Defects; World Ends

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is considering a policy change to the way it publicly confirms that it has opened a defect investigation, leading the manufacturing community to issue a DEFCON 1 alert.

Currently, under the Section 6b of the Consumer Product Safety Act, manufacturers have a lot of control over what negative information the CPSC can disclose about them. The CPSC cannot disclose information that falls within the envelope of trade secrets or “misleading” and “inaccurate” information.  The CPSC can disclose the existence of an investigation, under procedures designed to ensure the accuracy of whatever information is made public. The CPSC gives manufacturers 10 days to review any statements about their products, and typically the two entities release agreed-upon language.

“What is very important to take into account is that we adhere to 6b,” says CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson. “It is not a wall to disclosure. It’s a hurdle. As the Chairman (Inez Tennenbaum) has stated: “We do follow that law and we follow it in very prescribed ways.”

 In the past, the CPSC waited until the press took an interest in an alleged defect to initiate the 10-day review period. The proposed policy change, explained to manufacturers and their trade associations at a CPSC Safety Academy held in Bethesda, Maryland late last month, was an alternative to “approaching a company in a rushed situation, in which the media is asking for immediate confirmation, which at times we cannot give because the company is given 10 days to respond. We are considering a policy approach that starts the clock at an earlier stage. The same rights are given, but we prepare ahead of time for potential requests.”

The National Association of Manufacturers, lost no time in firing off a letter with apocalyptic overtones:

Home Use Generators: Dangerous and Behind the Curve

In late October 2011, Connecticut was hit by a rare early-season snowstorm that left more than 860,000 businesses and homes in that state without power. And some state residents who didn’t or couldn’t wait for the power to be restored, tried to survive the outage with the use of a portable generator. From the day of the storm until November 9, the Department of Public Health received 143 reports of carbon monoxide poisoning – nearly nine times the number of reports – 16 – for the previous three years combined. Five individuals died and 41 required a hospitalization; the majority of incidents were caused by portable generators for home use.

In writing about this surge in the Connecticut Epidemiologist, the researchers noted: “Outbreaks of CO poisonings following winter storms are well documented and continue to be a problem.”

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a potentially deadly gas found as a byproduct of internal combustion engines that is odorless, colorless and tasteless. According to the latest figures from the CPSC, from 1999 to 2011, 695 – nearly 80 percent – of the 881 fatalities from 513 incidents were associated with generators. And CO poisonings from home generators will continue to be a problem, because the only countermeasure mandated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission are warnings. While other engine-manufacturing industries, such as automotive and marine generators, use available technology to significantly reduce their CO emissions, makers of portable generators for home have been relying on capital letters and pictograms to avert injury and death.

The data suggest that dramatically worded warning labels don't do enough to depress the injury and mortality rate. According to CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson, there was a noticeable decline in CO incidents involving generators after the recent Mid-Atlantic derecho and Hurricane Issac. Nonetheless, the CPSC has been exploring technical solutions to the CO hazard since 2006.

Button Battery Ingestion on the Rise

Every three hours, a child under the age of 18 will show up at an emergency room to be treated for button battery ingestion and that rate is accelerating, according to a new study published in the online version of Pediatrics magazine this week. The first description of a button battery ingestion fatality in the medical literature was published in 1977, when a two and a half-year-old child swallowed a camera battery. Today, the nation’s emergency rooms see an estimated 3,289 children annually for button battery ingestion, according to Pediatric Battery-Related Emergency Department Visits in the United States, 1990-2009. Over the 20-year period of the study, the researchers from the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio examined a nationally representative sample from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System and found that such visits had significantly increased during the last eight years of the study.

CPSC Tries to Put the Lid on Fire Pots

In May 28, 2011 a 14 year-old boy in Riverhead, N.Y. suffered severe third-degree burns from a fire pot that exploded as he poured fuel into it.  Today he still struggles to recover. In June, Brent Miller, a 51-year-old property manager from Kissimmee, Florida, died after a 33-day hospitalization. Miller was pouring fuel into a fire pot, when it exploded, setting Miller, his wife, plants and other objects on the lanai aflame.

Scenarios such as these have prompted the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to regulate so-called fire pots, and the alcohol-based gel that fuels them. Fire pots are portable, decorative “lighting accents,” used both indoors and out. According to the CPSC, firepots were introduced into the marketplace in 2010, with 2.5 million units sold since then. They are often ceramic; some are partially enclosed by glass, and all contain an open stainless steel cup to hold the alcohol-based gel that produces a large flame. They are currently unregulated by voluntary or mandatory standards.

The Dark Side of Lighters

William B. Clemmer, a machinist from Stephenville, Texas was only 56 years old when he died. His last words, en route to a Dallas hospital, were: “My lighter exploded.”

Clemmer died on May 6, 2008 of severe burns over more than half of his body, 26 days after his MK lighter failed to extinguish and burst into flames in his pocket. Clemmer was at work on a Thursday in April, when he lit a cigarette, and placed the MK lighter in his pocket. Seconds later, the MK lighter exploded, engulfing his torso in flames. Although he was severely burned, he managed to call his brother, Ricky, who hurried over and drove him to the nearest fire station.

A quick-thinking employee, who later reported to work that day, snapped photos of the incident scene. He found the bay door to the machine shop wide open, signs of something burned and a lighter on the floor. Instinctively understanding that something was amiss, he captured the state of the workplace: charred remains of Clemmer’s clothing, the MK lighter, a single cigarette and a pack of Carnival cigarettes.

Today, the Clemmer family, through their lawyer Craig Sico, called on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to seek a recall of MK lighters, manufactured by the Chinese firm Zhuoye Lighter Company Ltd. and sold by the millions in the U.S. The Clemmers also asked the CPSC to bring the U.S. in line with other industrialized nations and implement a mandatory lighter safety standard, similar to the voluntary industry standard, which is already required in Canada and the European Union.

In 2006, the CPSC considered, but failed to take action on a request by the U.S. lighter industry trade group to make mandatory the voluntary standard American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) F400, first adopted in 1975.

Young Riders Not Big or Heavy Enough to Ride ATVS

The disproportionate percentage of injuries and deaths suffered by young riders on adult All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) illustrates the risks of this mismatch, but a group of Illinois emergency medicine doctors and medical researchers have conducted a study pinpointing one of the causes: young riders don’t have the physique to control adult-sized ATVs.

Researchers from the University of Illinois, College of Medicine, Saint Francis Medical Center, Bradley University; and the Neurological Institute sought to measure how the physical characteristics of riders, including height, weight and fingertip-to-fingertip length (wingspan), influenced their ability to safely control the ATV and avoid ejection. The researchers instrumented two ATVs, a Polaris Trailblazer 250 (a sport model), and a Honda FourTrax 250 (a utility model), to measure a rider’s body position in three maneuvers associated with crashes: the J-hook, the brake test, and the bump. Researchers were studying the lateral, longitudinal, and vertical dynamics in five riders of varying heights, weights, and wingspans, who had average experiences driving passenger vehicles, but no experience riding ATVs.

The study, published in the November issue of Neurosurg Focus, concluded:

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The Case of the Collapsing Seat: Weak Standards and No Oversight Led to a Fatal Defect

A renown seat safety expert has called on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Veterans Administration to institute random spot checks to ensure that mobility scooter and other powered wheelchair devices intended for the disabled meet minimum voluntary safety standards – and publicize any compliance failures to warn the public. Dr. Kenneth J. Saczalski, who has been at the forefront of seat strength issues for decades, made his call to action today at a meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Materials and Process Engineering meeting in Fort Worth, Texas.

Saczalski was retained by Miami attorney David Bianchi on behalf of the family of Carolyn Sorenson to determine what caused a scooter seat back to break in a products liability case against the U.S. distributors of the Daytona GT3 Electric Scooter. In January 2009, 64-year-old Sorenson died from positional asphyxiation in the trash room of her condominium building, when the plastic molded seat of her mobility scooter fractured and collapsed, causing her to fall backwards. Sorenson’s lower half remained belted in what was left of the seat, while her upper torso was wedged behind her against the door frame, according to police reports.

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