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Last March, a 37-year-old woman told the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) the carbon monoxide detector went off in her house. She suspected her gas range, made by ZLINE Kitchen and Bath of Nevada. She said ZLINE told her to get the local gas company to inspect it. The gas company said the range was indeed the culprit, according to a complaint filed with the CPSC. She said ZLINE initially refused to help, telling her the product was out of warranty.
Nine months and 43 other complaints about carbon monoxide later, ZLINE issued a recall on 28,000 gas ranges because they “can emit dangerous levels of carbon monoxide (CO) while in use, posing a serious risk of injury or death from carbon monoxide poisoning,” according to the December recall notice published by the CPSC.
Of the 44 cases, three led to individuals seeking medical attention. The emission of carbon monoxide, which is colorless and odorless, can lead to death. Fortunately, no one died.
The ZLINE problem was one of 292 recalls announced by the CPSC in 2022. The CPSC has authority over more than 15,000 types of products, from appliances to zippers. Recalls can occur when testing shows a consumer product doesn’t meet safety standards or when a product has been connected with potentially dangerous incidents, injuries, illnesses or deaths. Consumers are instructed to either discard or return the recalled product and get a refund, or contact the company about repairs.
A new analysis of 2022 CPSC recall data by U.S. PIRG Education Fund produced several key findings:
- There were 33% more recall announcements in 2022 compared with 2021. In 2022, there were 292 recalls, up from 219 in 2021.
- It’s clear from incident reports that products frequently are connected to serious incidents and sometimes even injuries, as in the example above, yet it often takes months or even years for a recall to be issued.
- Recalls are sometimes announced a second or third time. It’s also clear from these re-announcements that injuries often continue to occur long after the recall. For example, last year Generac Power Systems of Wisconsin renewed its recall on certain portable generators. The generators were recalled because an “unlocked handle can pin a person’s fingers against the generator frame when the generator is moved, posing a finger amputation and crushing hazards.”
When the recall was initially issued in July 2021, Generac said there were eight reports of injuries, seven resulting in finger amputations. By November 2022, 16 months after the recall, Generac said it had 37 reports of injuries, 24 resulting in finger amputations.
- Among last year’s 292 recalls, 65 of them – or 22% – involved injuries or deaths.
- Those 65 recalls disclosed 652 injuries and six deaths.
- About 85 recalls involved products for babies or children or that pose a risk for babies or children.
- Other categories with a large number of recalls: furniture, furnishings and decor with 29; kitchen with 17; electronics with 12; and clothing, and yard and garden, each with 10.
- Leading reasons for recalls include: 49 for risk of fire, 32 for risk of poisoning, 25 because they’re a choking hazard and 18 because of excessive levels of lead.
Last year, a product recall was announced every 30 hours on average. The problem isn’t the number of recalls – it’s that the products aren’t safe to begin with. Improving product safety is the overall goal.
At the same time, regulators and lawmakers need to look at why some unsafe products don’t get recalled sooner and why consumers continue to use dangerous products after a recall.
Product recalls over the last 20 years
HOW DO UNSAFE PRODUCTS GET TO MARKET?
The 292 recalls in 2022 were the most since 2016, when there were 330.
Before 2022, the annual average for the previous five years was 251. For the five years before that, the average was 306.
It’s notable that recalls soared by 33% last year. What drove that? Were there more dangerous products, or was enforcement better, or were more consumers reporting problems that were investigated?
Most consumers trust that, when they buy a product, it’s safe. It’s assumed that products have gone through testing and meet certain safety standards, many required by federal law. Yet that’s often not the case, or a defect surfaces, and the product later gets recalled.
Here are key safeguards that are in place:
- About 250 types of “general use products” are required to comply with various safety standards, which differ from product to product. The rules cover a range of items, including adhesives and antiquing kits, garage door openers and hair dryers, mattresses and rugs, and wax containers and writing instruments.
Manufacturers and importers of these must pledge in a written certificate that their products comply with applicable rules, which could address issues like flammability, hazardous substances or child-resistant containers.
- Children’s products, meaning toys, clothing or any other product for children 12 and under, must comply with a host of much stricter rules, concerning issues such as small parts, which are a choking hazard for young children, and lead content, which can cause brain damage and other neurological problems, particularly in children. In addition, federal law mandates that every children’s product pass testing at a CPSC-accepted laboratory.
- The CPSC’s Import Surveillance office collaborates with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to identify and inspect various shipments coming into ports that contain consumer products.
But not all products have mandatory standards. It’s not OK that the companies don’t test them anyway, CPSC Commissioner Richard Trumka told U.S. PIRG Education Fund. Companies simply should make sure their products are safe before selling them, he said.
COMPANIES ARE REQUIRED TO REPORT INCIDENTS
Even with products that don’t have to comply with specific safety standards, companies must report to the CPSC, within 24 hours, anytime they receive information that “reasonably suggests” the product could cause a health or safety hazard, even if no injuries have been reported. The law covers manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers.
The issues that require an immediate disclosure:
- A defective product that could injure someone.
- A product that “creates an unreasonable risk” that could seriously injure or kill someone.
- A product that doesn’t comply with consumer product safety rules.
- A case of a child choking on a marble, small ball, latex balloon or other small part contained in a toy or game and that causes the child to be treated by a medical professional, stop breathing, suffer a serious injury or die.
- For manufacturers and importers, certain kinds of lawsuits.
RECALLS SOMETIMES TAKE MONTHS OR YEARS AFTER SERIOUS INCIDENTS. WHY?
While companies are supposed to notify the CPSC of reportable incidents, consumers, doctors, coroners and other officials sometimes file complaints directly with the CPSC through saferproducts.gov. The CPSC then investigates to determine whether the product represents a hazard or demands “corrective action.”
In some cases, a company will notify the CPSC about a serious incident or death, and the CPSC will discover incidents that weren’t reported. There isn’t necessarily a timetable for determining whether a recall is warranted.
Recalls often come months or years after incidents were reported to the CPSC. A few examples from 2022 are below.
Samsung Top-Load Washing Machines
About 663,500 Samsung top-load washing machines were recalled Dec. 22, 2022, after Samsung received 51 reports of overheating, smoking, melting or fire involving the washers. Ten of those incidents caused property damage. Three injuries from smoke inhalation were reported. The washers were sold from June 2021 through December 2022 for $900 to $1,500.
Among the complaints was one that occurred in April and was reported in June, six months before the recall. A consumer reported the circuit board of their Samsung washer caught fire. No injuries were reported.
Another incident was reported in September, three months before the recall. A consumer reported to the CPSC that their Samsung washer caught fire while in use. When they noticed black smoke coming from the back of the washer, they went outside and called the fire department. The fire department took the washer. The fire from the washer burnt the top of the dryer, damaged her garage (where the washer was located) and caused smoke damage to the interior of the home.
Another incident was reported Dec. 14, 2022. A consumer said her husband heard a loud pop from the washer while it was running and saw smoking coming from the control panel. The man unplugged the washer and called Samsung. “Samsung keeps giving us a run around about a full refund. They keep insisting on repairing the issue,” the consumer said in the complaint. “I would never feel safe with a repaired product from Samsung. Am I entitled to a full refund? They told me I am not entitled to a refund.”
The Samsung washer was recalled eight days later. The recall remedy was a repair through a free software download. All three of the above incidents involved model numbers included in the recall.
Horizon fitness treadmills
About 192,000 Horizon fitness treadmills were recalled Oct. 27, 2022, by Johnson Health Tech Trading after Horizon received at least 874 reports of the treadmills unexpectedly changing speed or stopping. The complaints included 71 injury reports, ranging from bruises to broken bones. The treadmills were sold from March 2018 through October 2022 for $600 to $1,000.
Among the complaints was one reported 18 months before the recall, for an incident that occurred in October 2020. A 52-year-old consumer said they were on their Horizon treadmill when it abruptly stopped. The consumer also said a repair technician had been to the home twice to fix the issue but the problem remained.
Another incident was reported seven months before the recall, in March 2022. It occurred three months before that, in December 2021. A 63-year-old woman was hurt after her Horizon treadmill suddenly accelerated and she was thrown to the floor, according to the complaint filed with the CPSC. She suffered injuries to her wrist and shoulder, and a major abrasion on her knee.
In both cases, Johnson Health Tech told the CPSC it was reviewing the information provided by the consumers. It’s not publicly known when the other 872 reported incidents occurred.
Fitbit Ionic Smartwatches
About 1 million Fitbit Ionic smartwatches were recalled in the United States on March 2, 2022, after the company received at least 115 reports in the United States and 59 reports internationally of the lithium-ion watch battery overheating, leading to 78 reports of burn injuries in the United States and 40 burn injuries internationally. The products were sold from September 2017 through December 2021 for $200 to $330.
Among the complaints was one that occurred in April 2020 and reported in May 2020, nearly two years before the recall, according to the report filed with the CPSC. The woman said her FitBit caused “dime sized, red, itchy, flaky blisters with rash/burn.”
Another incident was reported in January 2021, six days after it occurred. This was 14 months before the recall. The consumer reported a “rash/burn” on their wrist.
FitBit told the CPSC in 2021 it was aware that “skin irritation affects a very limited number of consumers who use wearable devices all day and all night from sweat, water, or soap being held against the skin under the device, or from pressure or friction against the skin” and users should give their wrist a rest and then see a dermatologist if the problem continues. It’s not publicly known when the other 172 overheating incidents occurred.
Bestar folding wall beds
About 129,000 Bestar folding wall beds were recalled in the United States on April 7, 2022, after the company received more than 60 reports of the beds detaching from the wall and falling and hitting people. Among the reports was a case in July 2018, when a 79-year-old woman died after a Bestar wall bed fell on her, injuring her spine, the recall announcement said. It took nearly four years to recall the product.
The beds were sold from June 2014 through March 2022 for $1,650 to $2,200.
ZLINE gas ranges
In the recall mentioned earlier, about 28,000 gas ranges were recalled by ZLINE on Dec. 29, 2022, after the company received 44 complaints about carbon monoxide emission. The gas ranges were sold from February 2019 through December 2022 for $2,300 to $5,000. The recall was expanded last week to include more models.
After the March complaint filed by the 37-year-old consumer, a couple in their 40s told the CPSC in September 2022 that they and their two children ages 10 and 13 were awakened in the middle of the night by their carbon monoxide detector. The fire department and gas company evacuated the house; the gas company said the ZLINE gas range was the cause.
ZLINE told the CPSC it worked with both households to refund the purchase price in one case and replace the range in another. It’s not publicly known when the other 42 complaints were made.
Hoehn-Saric acknowledged the recall process sometimes takes months or even years if the company isn’t cooperative. When the CPSC is notified by the company, consumers, doctors or government officials of a possible hazardous product, the agency “conducts detailed investigations and analysis to identify the product at issue and the cause of the harm,” he said.
“Only after we make those findings can we approach a company to negotiate a recall. This can take months, particularly if products related to an incident are destroyed or thrown away, or other hurdles make the investigation difficult.”
Hoehn-Saric added that the “negotiations can become complex” in some cases.
It could be that the product needs a new part, but the CPSC wants to make sure a repair works and doesn’t create a new problem, he said.
If that doesn’t work and a company refuses to recall a product, he said, “the CPSC can seek to compel a recall through litigation, but that can take years to resolve.”
The public finds out about potentially dangerous products more quickly when companies self-report issues and start recalls themselves.
But any of these processes “take tremendous resources and time,” Hoehn-Saric said. “More funding to support CPSC’s work would make the process more efficient, faster, and more expansive, which would benefit all consumers.”
THE CPSC CAN’T QUICKLY WARN CONSUMERS ABOUT DANGEROUS PRODUCTS
In cases summarized here and hundreds of others like them, both the companies and the CPSC knew of potentially serious issues with products, yet didn’t act for months. While few could reasonably expect a recall or announcement within hours, some incidents and injuries would likely be prevented if an announcement or recall occurred sooner than it did.
From the CPSC’s standpoint, there’s a huge obstacle: Section 6(b) of the Consumer Product Safety Act, which prohibits the CPSC from publicly disclosing derogatory information about a product unless it has notified the company and waited 15 days. That gives the company enough time to file a lawsuit to block the disclosure. To avoid court battles, the CPSC often negotiates recalls with companies, which can take weeks or months.
In other cases, the CPSC may release a generic warning about a type of product, without identifying the specific product. For example, in 2020, the CPSC issued a warning about nursing pillows, saying it had “identified deaths possibly associated with pillow-like products and continues to analyze incident data with the goal of determining the risks with these products and providing more clarity to the public on any risks associated with these products.”
It took almost a year before a recall was announced for 3.3 million Boppy Original Newborn Loungers and two related loungers. The CPSC said eight infant deaths were reported in connection with the Boppy Company Newborn Lounger and advised consumers to immediately stop using the products. “Infants can suffocate if they roll, move, or are placed on the lounger in a position that obstructs breathing, or roll off the lounger onto an external surface, such as an adult pillow or soft bedding that obstructs breathing.”
In the announcement, the CPSC said the infant deaths occurred between December 2015 and June 2020. So nearly six years passed between the first death in 2015 and the recall in 2021.
In a more recent case, the CPSC on Nov. 16, 2022, did cite a company by name without an actual recall. It issued a “warning” about the “risk of death and serious injury with Future Motion’s Onewheel self-balancing electric skateboards.”
The CPSC warned consumers to stop using all Onewheel models after the agency tested Onewheel skateboards and determined they can cause riders to be ejected. “There have been at least four reported deaths between 2019 and 2021 and multiple reports of serious injuries after the product failed to balance the rider or suddenly stopped while in motion,” the CPSC said. Among the injuries reported: traumatic brain injury, concussion, paralysis and fractures. People shouldn’t ride, buy, sell or donate the Onewheel, the CPSC said.
At least 51 complaints about Onewheel skateboards were filed with the CPSC in 2022. Forty-seven of them said they were ejected or fell after the skateboard stopped or the self-balancing feature stopped. Most reported injuries including broken bones, concussions and cuts. In 42 of the cases, the riders ranged in age from 30 to 58.
In one from September, a 47-year-old said his arm was broken into four pieces and he required surgery. In one from October, a 31-year-old, who said he was wearing a helmet, said he was taken by ambulance and suffered head trauma, broken bones in his face and is now blind in his left eye.
A recall of the Onewheel skateboards has not been announced. The skateboards currently sell for $1,050 to $2,200, depending on the model. Future Motion did announce a recall of only the GT model in August for a different issue: The skateboard not stopping.
The CPSC said Future Motion “has refused to agree to an acceptable recall” for all of the skateboards involved. But the CPSC plans to pursue a recall.
Injuries reported directly to the CPSC go back to at least July 2019, when it received a report of an 18-year-old man who was traveling 20 to 30 mph on a Onewheel + skateboard when it stopped suddenly and he was thrown off face first. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital and diagnosed with injuries including severe traumatic brain injury as a result of brain bleeding, seizure-like activity, memory impairment, deteriorating vision, severe balance problems and blunt chest trauma.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a longtime product safety proponent, told U.S. PIRG Education Fund the analysis of all of these cases in this report makes it clear change is needed.
“U.S. PIRG’s new report reaffirms the urgent need to improve slow and ineffective product recalls that put Americans at risk,” he said.
“Current CPSC constraints cause delays of months—or even years—all while dangerous products remain in homes across the country, injuring or killing more people,” Blumenthal added. “My Sunshine in Product Safety Act would eliminate such barriers and must be swiftly passed to ensure the CPSC can do its job of protecting consumers.”
COMPANIES SOMETIMES DELAY NOTIFYING THE CPSC OF A PROBLEM
In other cases, action by the CPSC could be delayed because a company didn’t notify the CPSC of an incident as required. Hoehn-Saric said the CPSC sometimes doesn’t learn about problems until years after an injury.
The law says failure to furnish information required by Section 15(b) could lead to “substantial civil and criminal penalties.” Here are a few examples from 2022:
Vornado Air space heaters
On July 7, 2022, Vornado Air LLC of Kansas agreed to pay a $7.5 million civil penalty. The CPSC said Vornado failed to immediately report that its VH101 Personal Vortex electric space heater “contained a defect or created an unreasonable risk of serious injury.” The CPSC said Vornado had investigated multiple consumer reports of fire but did not immediately notify the CPSC.
Then in December 2017, a 90-year-old Minnesota man died in a fire involving a Vornado space heater, Vornado told the CPSC in January 2018.
About 350,000 of the heaters were recalled three months later. The heaters sold for about $30. The recall was re-announced on August 22, 2018, after Vornado confirmed the heater involved in the man’s death was a VH101. Vornado received 19 reports of the heaters catching on fire.
Clawfoot Supply shower seats
On Sept. 15, 2022, Clawfoot Supply, LLC, of Kentucky, agreed to pay a $6 million civil penalty. The CPSC said Clawfoot failed to immediately report that its Wall-Mounted Teak Folding Shower Seats “contained a defect that could create a substantial product hazard and created an unreasonable risk of serious injury to consumers.”
Clawfoot received reports of problems beginning in 2011 and into 2018, but filed its first report with the CPSC in July 2018. The consumer complaints included incidents where the seats broke while someone was sitting on it, leading to injury. About 7,200 Wall-Mounted Shower Seats were recalled five months after the report to the CPSC, on Dec. 4, 2018. The shower seats were sold from January 2011 to July 2018, for $150 to $160.
At the time of the recall, the company received 194 reports of the shower seats breaking, including 23 reports of injuries ranging from scrapes and bruises to cuts requiring stitches to one lumbar fracture.
Core Health exercise machines
On Jan. 31, 2022, Core Health & Fitness LLC of Washington agreed to pay a $6.5 million civil penalty. The CPSC said Core failed to immediately report that its Cable Cross Over Machines and Dual Adjustable Pulley Machines “contained a defect or created an unreasonable risk of serious injury.” The issue: “between 2012 and February 2017, Core received 55 complaints involving falling carriages, including 11 incidents that caused head lacerations requiring stitches or staples,” according to the settlement agreement.
Twenty other injuries were later reported.
Core filed a report with the CPSC in February 2017. About 3,600 machines were recalled five months later, on July 12, 2017. The machines sold for $2,700 to $8,400
Finally, the most recent case that points to the not infrequent lack of compliance was the huge settlement involving Peloton Interactive Inc. of New York. The CPSC said Jan. 5, 2023, that Peloton agreed on Dec. 28, 2022, to pay a $19.1 million civil penalty. The CPSC said Peloton “knowingly failed to immediately report” that its Tread+ treadmill “contained a defect that could create a substantial product hazard and created an unreasonable risk of serious injury to consumers.”
Beginning in December 2018 and into 2019, Peloton received complaints involving people and pets being pulled under and entrapped in the rear of the treadmill, with some leading to injuries. Peloton didn’t report any incidents to the CPSC until March 4, 2021, a day after learning that a 6-year-old child had died after being entrapped under the rear of the Tread+ treadmill.
“By the time Peloton filed a report with the Commission there were more than 150 reports of people, pets, and/or objects being pulled under the rear of the Tread+ treadmill, including the death of a child and 13 injuries, including broken bones, lacerations, abrasions and friction burns,” the CPSC said.
About 125,000 Tread+ treadmills were recalled two months after the report to the CPSC, on May 5, 2021. The treadmills sold for about $4,295.
Hoehn-Saric, the CPSC chair, said in a statement in January 2023: “When a company continues to sell dangerous products that they know can cause serious injury or death, it must be held accountable.”
Noting the commission voted unanimously to approve the settlement, Hoehn-Saric said: “By acting with one voice, the CPSC sends a loud and clear warning to companies who continue to sell dangerous products that they know can cause serious injury or death. In Peloton’s case, despite becoming aware of more than 150 reported incidents of persons, pets and/or objects being pulled under the rear of the Tread+ treadmill it was not until after receiving notice that a 6-year-old child had died after being entrapped under the rear of the treadmill that Peloton reported these incidents to the CPSC.
“By failing to report these incidents to the Commission immediately, Peloton not only violated the Consumer Product Safety Act, but also consumers’ trust.”
Meanwhile, Commissioner Peter Feldman said enforcement actions are uneven and not severe enough in some cases. He voted in favor of the Peloton settlement but said: “I remain concerned that CPSC lacks a coherent enforcement policy when it comes to civil penalties … Without principled decision-making, the product safety community will remain confused about the expectations the Commission is setting for how we will deal with similar conduct.”
EVEN AFTER RECALLS, INCIDENTS AND INJURIES CONTINUE. WHY?
Consumers don’t find out or disregard the warnings
In July 2022, a 38-year-old consumer told the CPSC their Insignia 10-Quart Digital Airfryer caught on fire the previous month. It had been purchased at Best Buy four months earlier. But a recall for about 635,000 of the air fryers had been issued two months before the incident, in April 2022, because the air fryers could overheat, posing fire and burn hazards.
Cases like these lead you to wonder whether the consumer didn’t know about the danger, or brushed it aside. There are many, many more incidents like this. Read about a couple of them under the “Read more” section.
Retailers sometimes continue selling recalled products
In other cases, the problem is compounded because retailers continue to sell products after they’re recalled. It is illegal to sell a recalled product. This applies not only to traditional merchants, but also thrift stores, consignment shops and individuals holding yard sales and flea markets.
Consumers don’t find out or disregard the warnings. Here are a couple more examples:
On May 7, 2022, a 42-year-old consumer told the CPSC the door handle came off the bottom freezer of her GE refrigerator/freezer when she tried to open the freezer the day before, causing her to fall back into the counter. Three weeks earlier, about 155,000 of the refrigerators, including her model number, had been recalled. The recall notice said: “The freezer handle can detach when a consumer tries to open the freezer drawer, posing a fall hazard to the consumer.”
On June 23, 2022, a consumer’s ice maker on their Frigidaire side-by-side refrigerator started “spitting out plastic pieces and these pieces have been found in the ice when dispensed; I have saved these pieces,” they reported to the CPSC. Three weeks before the incident, 367,500 Frigidaire and Electrolux refrigerators had been recalled because “the ice level detector arm in the ice maker can break into pieces and fall into the ice bucket, posing a choking hazard.” The recall included this person’s model.
Electrolux, the manufacturer, “received 185 reports of the ice level detectors breaking, including one report of gum lacerations,” the CPSC said. Consumers were instructed to stop using the refrigerators’ ice makers, empty the ice bucket and contact the company to schedule a technician to replace the ice maker at no charge.
Trumka said he believes the CPSC is doing a better job of warning consumers by identifying recalled products by their brand name in the headlines of recall notices. The announcements also usually include a list of retailers that sold the item.
In addition, Hoehn-Saric said, CPSC recall notices are now providing consumers with direct links to contact the company for a refund, replacement or repair. “In the past, the links often went to the home page of a company leading to frustration and confusion,” he said.
Despite that, items often remain in people’s homes because it’s too “arduous” for consumers to try to get a refund, replacement or repair, Trumka told U.S. PIRG Education Fund. The CPSC needs to do more to “secure a remedy that is worth consumers’ time to pursue,” he said. “If not, items that pose a hazard will stay in circulation.”
Trumka recommends a full refund for anyone possessing a recalled product, without requiring a receipt. “Who keeps those?” he asked. Repairs or replacements may be appropriate in some cases. “Key to all of these solutions is ensuring that the process is quick and easy for the consumer,” Trumka said.
Retailers sometimes continue selling recalled products
In a guide for anyone selling products CPSC says: “It is illegal to sell any recalled product. If you are in the business of reselling products, you are expected to know the laws, rules, and regulations that apply to your business, including whether a product you are selling has been recalled for a safety issue. It is unlawful to offer recalled products for sale under Section 19 of the Consumer Product Safety Act (15 U.S.C. § 2068), so having the recalled product in inventory is a violation of federal law.”
While some recalled products may get sold at garage sales or through small websites out of ignorance, many cases involve some of the nation’s largest merchants:
On Aug. 2, 2022, the CPSC said The TJX Companies agreed to pay a $13 million civil penalty after it “knowingly sold, offered for sale, and distributed approximately 1,200 recalled products… during a five-year period from March 2014 through October 2019.” The CPSC said TJX sold, offered and distributed the recalled products through its stores including T.J. Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods, and online.
The majority of the illegal sales involved products recalled because of the risk of infant suffocation and death. They included the Kids2 Rocking Sleepers, Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play Sleepers and Fisher-Price Inclined Sleeper Accessory for Ultra-Lite Day & Night Play Yards. Other products included recalled kitchen items, children’s clothing and foldable lounge chairs.
The settlement was opposed by Feldman, the CPSC commissioner, who said in a statement: “There is evidence that TJX continued to sell products for almost two years after the Commission notified it to stop. TJX actively ignored recalls and did not employ its inventory control technology responsibly. These illegal sales, and the fact that they went on for years, evidence, at best, systemic issues with TJX’s internal controls and, at worst, callous disregard for the laws we enforce …
“Given that TJX is a repeat offender that has failed to monitor itself in the past, the proposed order’s injunctive requirements are meaningless without some external verification to ensure the terms of the agreement are met.
“A central purpose of CPSC’s civil penalty authority is to deter violations,” Feldman added. “While the fine here may seem significant, it is nowhere near the maximum relief we could have sought. In the case of a company that had almost $3.3 billion in profits and $49 billion in sales last year, I fear this $13 million fine, even with the mild injunctive relief TJX is agreeing to, amounts to nothing more than a parking ticket for TJX, a minor inconvenience.”
This wasn’t the first time a large national retailer agreed to settle claims that it illegally sold recalled products.
In 2017, Home Depot agreed to pay a $5.7 million civil penalty to settle charges that it “knowingly sold and distributed” about 2,816 recalled products from 33 separate recalls during a four-year period from August 2012 through November 2016. The products were recalled because of risks including fire, laceration, and electrocution and shock hazards. The products included smoke detectors, lights and space heaters.
In 2016, Best Buy agreed to pay a $3.8 million civil penalty to settle charges it “knowingly sold and distributed 16 different recalled products during a five-year period from 2010 through 2015.” The products included recalled computers, TVs and appliances. The CPSC said Best Buy didn’t have adequate procedures to identify and prevent sales. “Sales of recalled products continued even after Best Buy told CPSC that the firm had put measures into place to reduce the risk of sales of recalled products,” the CPSC said.
Hoehn-Saric said the CPSC has increased enforcement against companies that illegally sell recalled products. He expects the civil penalties against violators will have “deterrent value” and lead retailers to do better.
Illegal sales may be a bigger issue on the secondary market, on platforms such as Facebook Marketplace, eBay and other online resellers. “There is no question that secondary market sales continue to be a problem,” Hoehn-Saric said.
He said the CPSC has “an entire team” focused on monitoring marketplaces and notifying them to remove listings for recalled and banned items. In 2022, more than 57,800 products were pulled from websites because of this enforcement. He added that most platforms “are responsive” to requests, but it shouldn’t come to that. Online retailers should do more to make sure recalled products don’t get listed to begin with. ”Platforms can and should do more to protect consumers,” he said.
In an investigation last fall for our Trouble in Toyland report, U.S. PIRG Education Fund set out to see how many recalled toys we could buy online. In one month, we bought more than 30 previously recalled toys through eBay, Facebook Marketplace and several smaller sites. In two cases, eBay sent us an email after we received the toy to disclose that it had been recalled months earlier.
Recalled products being sold on the secondary market is not a new problem.
For example, in a letter nearly a year ago, two members of Congress wrote a letter to Facebook Marketplace parent Meta that the company should take meaningful steps to make sure recalled products aren’t being sold on its platform. The letter was sent by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), who were then chairs of their respective subcommittees on consumer protection issues.
The two called on Meta to automatically prevent listings for recalled products, as it does with other illegal items, and launch a tool so consumers can report any recalled product that slips through.
“Meta’s continued failure to do so indicates a remarkable dereliction of duty by your company on behalf of your users,” the letter said.
SOMETIMES, THE PUBLIC NEEDS TO BE REMINDED A SECOND TIME ABOUT A RECALL YEARS LATER
The CPSC sometimes “reannounces” recalls when it believes that consumers don’t know that products they own have been recalled, or they don’t act on that information, or, in a few cases, the products continue to be sold illegally after the recall, as highlighted in the previous section.
In January 2023, Fisher-Price, working with the CPSC, reannounced the 2019 recall of 4.7 million Rock ‘n’ Play Sleepers after at least eight babies died after the initial recall. Overall, about 100 infants died while in the Rock ‘n’ Play Sleepers. On the same day, Kids2 reannounced a 2019 recall of about 694,000 Rocking Sleepers after at least four babies died after the initial recall.
This wasn’t the only reannouncement in recent years. Read about others below.
Commissioners with the CPSC were direct in their comments about the Rock ‘n’ Play sleepers.
“We are issuing this announcement because, despite their removal from the marketplace and a prohibition on their sale, babies continue to die in these products,” Hoehn-Saric, the CPSC chair, said in a statement. “I urge all parents, grandparents, and caregivers to follow the guidance of this announcement and stop using these products immediately.”
In the case of the Fisher-Price recall, Trumka, the CPSC commissioner, said in a statement that Fisher-Price did a poor job of handling the recall by offering refunds only to consumers who’d bought the product during a six-month period, when it had been for sale for 10 years. Other consumers were offered vouchers, which could take three to four months to get, meaning the infants may no longer be infants by the time they could get a replacement product.
“Companies save money when people do not participate in their recalls,” Trumka said. “When that happens, dangerous products stay in homes. We have seen that lead to deaths.”
The other recent significant announcement came in November from Generac Power Systems regarding portable generators.The generators were originally recalled in July 2021 because an unlocked handle can pin a person’s fingers against the generator frame when the generator is moved, posing a finger amputation and crushing hazard.
At the time of the initial recall, Generac said there were eight reports of injuries, seven resulting in finger amputations. By November 2022, 16 months after the recall, Generac said the number of injuries had more than quadrupled, with 37 reports of injuries, 24 resulting in finger amputations.
Going back a few years, Gree Electric Appliances in 2016 reannounced recalls of 2.5 million dehumidifiers it manufactured under several brands, including Frigidaire, GE, Kenmore and SoleusAir. The dehumidifiers sold for $110 to $400.
The 2016 announcement said there were more than 2,000 complaints of the dehumidifiers overheating. About 450 incidents led to fires, causing more than $19 million in property damage. This recall was first announced in September 2013 and expanded in January 2014.
In 2013, only 325 complaints had been reported, including 71 fires that caused $2.7 million in property damage.
This leads to the big question: What can be done to improve consumer and retailer awareness?
THERE ARE LIMITED WAYS FOR CONSUMERS TO FIND OUT ABOUT RECALLS
A big problem with consumers not knowing about recalls: There aren’t effective ways to alert people to every recall involving every item they own or use. Nearly 2,800 consumer products have been recalled in the last decade. Some are massive recalls involving millions of products connected with serious injuries or deaths. These often get covered by news organizations and may get shared on social media.
Other recalls involve only a few hundred products sold and haven’t been associated with any injuries. These are less likely to garner media attention. And even if they did, at some point consumers may tune out the recall-of-the-day alert.
One way consumers can learn about recalls involving products they bought: If they register their information with the company. Consumers may do this with expensive items that could later have warranty claims. They’re less likely to do it with a $2 coffee mug or a $3 bottle of cleaner or even a $35 tea kettle. But if they’ve registered their contact information with the company, the company can issue recall notices directly.
Consumers can also learn about recalls through the CPSC’s website, saferproducts.gov. The search function for specific items is good, but who is going to periodically search the site for products they own? It might be reasonable, and smart, for consumers to set reminders to look periodically for any recalls involving their appliances and toys their kids play with. Unfortunately, that isn’t likely to be a habit most consumers adopt.
“Making sure consumers are aware and act on recalls is a priority for me,” Hoehn-Saric told U.S. PIRG Education Fund. The CPSC has taken some steps to improve consumer awareness, he said. “For example, wherever possible CPSC expects recalling firms to provide direct notice of the recall to everyone who bought the product. With more and more Americans shopping online, there are more opportunities for direct notice.”
Clearly, if someone buys something online, the merchant has the shopper’s contact information. The more that companies reach out, the more consumers will learn about recalls, Hoehn-Saric said.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, has called the product recall system “ineffective.” In a 2021 subcommittee hearing on product safety issues that surface around the holidays, she said the CPSC has reported that consumers follow through with recalls in only about 6% of cases.
“I am deeply concerned about how well our current system protects consumers, particularly children, from unsafe products,” Cantwell said in a statement. “We need to do better. Too often product recalls are not effective at getting dangerous products out of circulation.”
In a letter to the CPSC, she said that a few things that would improve recall effectiveness:
- Strong, enforceable agreements with companies.
- Better incentives for manufacturers, retailers, and consumers to comply with recalls.
- More data and better ways to track recall effectiveness.
Drilling down a bit more, the CPSC said in 2017 that recalled products with a retail price of less than $20 were corrected or fixed by consumers only about 4% of the time. Recalled products with the retail price of $10,000 or more were corrected or fixed about 32% of the time.
CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
1. Congress should allow regulators to warn consumers
In April 2021, the Sunshine in Product Safety Act was introduced. The bill would allow regulators to be more transparent with consumers about dangers in the marketplace without being vetoed by the companies themselves.
Section 6(b) of the existing Consumer Product Safety Act prohibits the CPSC from publicly disclosing derogatory information about a product unless it has notified the company and waited 15 days. That gives the company enough time to file a lawsuit to block the disclosure.
“The Sunshine in Product Safety Act puts consumer safety first,” Blumenthal, the Senator who introduced the bill, said in a statement.
“CPSC must be able to move swiftly to warn Americans when products like the Peloton Tread+ and the Fisher-Price Rock ’n Play Sleeper pose a danger to them and their families,” Blumenthal said. “Yet current regulatory constraints allow companies to call the shots on how and when to notify the public about their hazardous products, keeping important safety information from the public. This bill will eliminate these constraints, restoring transparency to product safety for the sake of consumers.”
The Sunshine bill, or something like it, should be introduced in the new Congress and passed.
2. Require companies to do more
Companies with recalled products should be required to spend more money to alert consumers. Besides notifying customers who’ve provided contact information, companies could amplify the recall through social media, and targeted advertising and newspaper legal notices.
3. Give the CPSC more resources
The CPSC is supposed to protect the public from dangers that may exist with 15,000 different kinds of consumer products. The CPSC has the authority to set mandatory safety standards; influence voluntary safety standards; require labeling; force hazardous products to be removed from store shelves; order product recalls; educate the public about product safety; and collect and analyze data about injuries, death and incidents.
The CPSC reviews about 8,000 unintentional product-related death certificates each year, and tracks at least 15.5 million injuries each year that are treated in emergency rooms and associated with consumer products.
The CPSC’s “current funding is woefully inadequate,” the agency’s former Acting Chair Robert Adler wrote in a letter to the House appropriations committee in 2021.
- The CPSC’s $135 million annual budget at that time was the smallest of all of the federal health and safety regulatory agencies.
- The CPSC needs more resources to better protect consumers.
- The budget of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) works out to $10 per person in the United States in 2021. The CPSC, by comparison, comes in at 40 cents per person.
- For the five previous years, the average budget increase for the CPSC was only 1.6% compared with 2.7% for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and 4.8% for FDA. “Notwithstanding these budget disparities, CPSC must still serve and protect the same 330 million Americans as our sister agencies,” Adler wrote.
PIRG and other consumer advocates pushed for a FY22 CPSC budget twice as large as what was approved. The 2021 letter was also signed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Reports and Kids In Danger.
We noted the additional CPSC funding would allow the 539-person agency to expand product testing, increase staff at major U.S. ports, increase oversight, get dangerous products recalled more quickly and improve consumer awareness of recalls.
Trumka of the CPSC said investigations and actions against a company, if necessary, take time. “The more resources we have, the more we can do to protect consumers. And the more resources we have, the faster we can act to protect consumers.”
4. The CPSC’s recalls website needs to be improved
Consumers are encouraged to sign up to receive email alerts when products are recalled, but there’s a recall almost every day on average. At some point, consumers will become numb to the emails – the vast majority which won’t be of interest to them.
There should be a way to filter and receive recall emails only on certain categories of products, such as toys, kitchen appliances or power tools. Alerts by brand name would be even better.
5. The saferproducts.gov site needs improvement
For consumers searching for past complaints or incidents involving a particular product, it’s often not easy to find reports. For example, if you type in “XYZ refrigerator,” it will show you every report mentioning either: any product made by XYZ, or any brand of refrigerator. It can be cumbersome to wade through the complaint summaries of reports that aren’t what you’re looking for.
Using the site’s “advanced search” function does help a lot. But it’s not as user-friendly as it could be.
For example, if the actual name of a product is XYZ refrigerator and you type “XYZ refrigerator” in the “product” field, it will show you every report mentioning either: any product made by XYZ, or any brand of refrigerator from any manufacturer. It again can be cumbersome to wade through the complaint summaries of reports that aren’t what you’re looking for. But it is helpful that you can sort by relevance, newest reports or oldest complaints.
In reality, you need to enter “XYZ refrigerator” in the “keyword” field, not the “product field.” Then it will provide the results you’re looking for.
In addition, if you want to amend a search where you entered numerous search parameters, you can’t just change one thing, such as the date. You have to enter all of the fields again.
This is a complex problem and there’s no single, easy solution. But something needs to change or people will continue to get injured or killed by the products we use every day.
CHECK OUT OUR TIPS FOR CONSUMERS
- If you’re considering buying a product, especially an expensive purchase or an item for a child, check for recalls on cpsc.gov/recalls and for complaints on saferproducts.gov
- The government logs a list of product recalls online. Besides CPSC recalls, try recalls.gov for recalls across other consumer protection agencies.
- Fill out online or mail-in registrations that come with products. Then companies can contact you in case of issues.
- Use extra caution when buying from resale websites. It’s illegal for the primary or secondary platforms to sell recalled products, Individual consumers offering products for sale may not know an item has been recalled. Check on cpsc.gov/recalls before you buy.
- Use even more caution when buying products being shipped from overseas or from websites that seem unsophisticated or that give you pause. International sellers may not comply with U.S. safety standards, and unethical sellers may peddle all sorts of previously recalled or unsafe merchandise.
- With your appliances, electronics, toys or other items used by children, and with any other category of products where recalls are common, search periodically for recalls involving your possessions on cpsc.gov/recalls and search for complaints on saferproducts.gov
- If you experience an issue with a product and want to warn other consumers and report it to regulators, you can file a report at saferproducts.gov
People can search for complaints or incidents or file their own report at saferproducts.gov. The search interface looks like this.
Consumer Watchdog, U.S. PIRG Education Fund
Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers’ health, safety and financial security. Previously, she worked as a journalist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio’s largest daily newspaper. She received dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, a National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis, and a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected 15 million customers nationwide. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.