Ohio Importer Recalls Six Million Chinese Tire Stem Valves As NHTSA Opens Probe into 30 Million More

OXFORD, NORTH CAROLINA -- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating Chinese-made replacement tire valve stems sold by Dill Air Controls for potential defects, while an Ohio importer of the product recalls six million valve stems made by the same company, because of cracks that can occur in as little as six months.

Dill has acknowledged that 30 million of the suspect and hard-to track replacement valves may be on shelves of tire retailers and distributors and on vehicles. And the scope of the problem is likely to expand - more recent evidence has emerged that appears to show that defective valve stems were also used as original equipment on some 2007 model year vehicles.

On June 2, Tech International of Johnstown, Ohio filed a recall report with NHTSA, after discovering a manufacturing defect in its replacement snap-in tire valve stem manufactured by Shangai Baolong Industries Co., Ltd. of Shanghai. The Model TR413 is a 1.25 inch valve stem for a 0.453 inch rim hole, installed as replacements in tires as they are serviced or replaced. Tech International claimed that the defect was actually confined to only 8,600 valve stems, manufactured between July and November 2006. The company didn't elaborate on how it determined the problem affected only a small percentage of the valves.

On May 15, NHTSA opened a preliminary evaluation into the safety of the TR413, after Shangai Baolong's American branch, Dill Air Control Products, reported that the family of a fatal crash victim filed suit against it, alleging that the crash was caused by a defective tire valve stem.

Safety Research & Strategies and Orlando attorney Richard Newsome, who represents the Monk family, sought to alert the public, by issuing a press release warning the public of the safety hazard of driving with cracked tire valve stems and criticized Dill for doing so little to get the defective components out of circulation.

"Radial tires do not show signs of underinflation by a visual inspection until they are significantly underinflated, at which point the tire may have sustained irreparable damage. Motorists may not realize that they are driving on tires that are underinflated and overloaded," SRS President Sean E. Kane said. "The only way to tell if you have a valve stem made by this company is to dismount the tire from the wheel to examine it from the inside. Once they are out of the box, and on a vehicle there is no tracking for these products so you can't notify owners. If you're not checking tires pressure regularly, now is the time to get into the habit."

But Dill has not delivered this message to end users. The company has only notified its tire distributors to inspect their inventory for the suspect lots and recommended "out of an abundance of caution" that tire retailers inspect the valve stems on vehicles that received replacements between September 2006 and June 2007 if they return for service. Following the SRS - Newsome press release, Dill has added information to their web site about how to inspect for valve stem cracking.

"It's not an abundance of caution to wait for customers to return to retailers to inspect for defective valves" Newsome says. "An abundance of caution would have Dill alerting the public who bought tires after August 2006 that they need to have their valves inspected and to pay close attention to tire inflation pressure to prevent further tragedies."

Typically, tire valve stems are an under-the-radar defect. Because the component is an inexpensive commodity and disposable, technicians or consumers may simply replace a cracked tire valve, without suspecting it is part of a larger defect trend or that it is a serious safety hazard that could lead to a severe crash. Al Walker was an exception. Walker, a Prius owner and computer expert from North Reading, Massachusetts, upgraded his OEM tires to Michelin Hydroedge tires and discovered that the valve stems, which the tire shop replaced when it replaced the tires, had begun to fail.

I was really disturbed to discover, only a year after getting the new tires that the valve stems on my wheels were starting to crack around their own bases and appeared to be well on the way to leaking or possibly even separating completely from the rims. Now, *that* would suck at highway speed, wouldn't it??

Walker, who wrote about his experience in November 2007 and posted it on an enthusiast website discovered that his snap-in valves came from Dill Air Controls. Walker noted that Dill was "evidently one of the elder ‘big three' in the tire valve business" and that "North Carolina used to be the glorious hub of tire valve manufacture, but recently they and everyone else such as Eaton and Schrader have been forced to outsource and most of their product is actually made in China like everything else." Walker went on to report that he contacted Dill and was told that about the challenges of quality controls facing companies who outsource manufacturing and a Dill employee presciently indicated the most likely cause was lack of good anti-ozone protection in the rubber compound. "He hinted that making things out of good long-lasting EPDM elastomers has almost become a lost art. Well, as far as I'm concerned that solves the big mystery."

To the vast majority of consumers, however, tire valve stems - their importance to tire safety and their potential for failure remain a mystery.

A Fatal Crash Touches Off a Probe

On November 11, Robert Monk of Orlando, Fla. died when the right rear wheel of his 1998 Ford Explorer failed, triggering a rollover crash. The tire failure was linked to a cracked Dill TR413 replacement valve stem manufactured by Dill Air Control Products. In March, the Monk family filed suit against the Oxford, North Carolina company.

In April, Dill officials met with NHTSA to discuss the problem, and three days later, sent a Technical Bulletin to some major tire retailers advising them that the company had received complaints of surface cracks appearing on the outside of the rubber near the rim hole in several models: TR 413, TR 413 chrome, TR 414, and TR 418 Dill ACP valve stems. "When the rubber is exposed to high levels of ozone as it is being stressed, surface cracks can appear. High speeds and an unsupportive rim profile allow the rubber valve to flex at a greater angle and may cause these cracks to propagate, leading to a slow leak of air," the bulletin said.

Dill officials told NHTSA that valves, manufactured from July 2006 to November 2006, may leak from cracks caused by ozone exposure, leading to the opening of a defect investigation on May 15.

On June 2, Tech International, a distributor of Shanghai Baolong-made replacement tire valve stems, announced a recall of 6 million TR413 valve stems, offering free replacements and compensation for any tire damage caused by the defective part. According to their recall letter, "Tech International does not know the identity of any end-users of the TR413 valves and has no realistic method of determining the identity of such individuals. Furthermore, there is no realistic method for Tech International to identify the production dates of any specific TR413 valves."

Nor do the TR413 valves have any identification number on them. The only way for consumers to distinguish a valve stem manufactured by Baolong is the triangle shape located on the base of the valve stem, which is not visible from the outside of the wheel once the stem is mounted.

Even before the Monk family filed its lawsuit, the problem was showing up at the distributor level. In late January, one Tech International distributor reported a small number of potential valve stem failures. Tech International shipped samples to the manufacturer for testing. In March, Baolong verified that TR413 valves manufactured between July 2006 and November 2006 may have been defective - consisting of a population of approximately 8,600 tire valve stems. Baolong also tested samples of valves manufactured after November of 2006 and determined that they were not defective. Nonetheless, Tech International continued to receive reports of valve stem failures, leading the importer to determine that a defect exists.

Tech International agreed to replace any defective TR413 snap-in air valve stems. The distributor also said that if the failure caused structural damage to a tire, Tech International said that it would replace the tire.

Dill and the Re-Occuring Cracking Problem

Dill first acknowledged the importance of adding antiozonizers in 1969, when the National Highway Safety Bureau (predecessor to NHTSA) opened a cursory investigation into Dill valve stem cracks, sending the manufacturer an information request. Dill replied that the cracks were normal for a high-ozone area, such as Los Angeles, and that its product was now more robust: "Our rubber compounds have improved by adding antiozonizers with the ever increasing ozone concentration (sic)."

The NHSB accepted Dill's analysis without inquiry or taking further action and closed the valve stem investigation.

In March 2005, Shanghai Baolong Industries Co. Ltd. and ZhongdingGroup purchased an ownership stake in Eaton Corporation's Roxboro, North Carolina plant. The Chinese manufacturer renamed the company as Dill Air Controls Products and relocated the facility to Oxford.

In April 2006, the board of Dill Air Controls Products Corporation met, with members from the U.S. and China attending. This was the first such meeting since Shanghai Baolong purchased the company. Besides discussions about business strategy and future goals, the group discussed current challenges. At a technical exchange between Dill and Topseal, the managers discussed "problem such as tire valve leaking, core of tire valve not firm and so on. Then, they have a deep discussion about leakage testing method of the snap-in valves and metal valves, the preset parameter of the air pressure and the airproof test of VC12. They expressed together-studying, interdependent and the hope that create a new situation of tire valve field," according to a Shangai Baolong report of the meeting.

Two years later, in April 2008, after being served with the Monk lawsuit, Dill officials met with NHTSA to discuss the potential snap-in tire valve defect. Dill described a problem with valves leaking from cracks due to apparent ozone exposure and indicated that an early investigation had traced the concern to a five-month manufacturing period in 2006 - even though discussions about the integrity of the tire valve stem had taken place two years earlier.

The Ford Connection

Complaints of premature valve stem cracking are emerging from owners of 2007 model year Ford vehicles. Shanghai Baolong's website acknowledges they supply Ford Motor Company and other vehicle manufactures with original equipment valve stems. Boston ABC affiliate station WCVB reported cracked valves on two station owned 2007 Explorer models. Removal of the stems showed markings identical to those found on the valves recalled by Tech International.

"We fully expect additional recall announcements as the extent and whereabouts of these defective valves becomes more transparent - and Ford Motor Company is likely to be on the hook for at least one these recalls" says Sean Kane.

Copyright © Safety Research & Strategies, 2008

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