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You Should Know: Top Safety and Justice Stories of 2016

Are you making all those lists and checking them twice? Gifts? Holiday cards? Party invitations? New Year’s resolutions? Well, here’s one more for you courtesy of the American civil justice system: safer products and services.

This past year we’ve been following several stories of dangerous products or unfair practices that threaten the health, safety and legal rights of all Americans. Think exploding batteries, lead-laced drinking water, forced arbitration or faulty medical devices, for example. 

But thanks to the courage of citizens like you and the power of the civil justice system, we are holding accountable many of those who put profit over public well-being. And that’s a list we can all be proud of, as these stories so richly illustrate.

1. Faulty Medical Devices: Recalls Double

According the the FDA, medical device recalls doubled from 2003 to 2012, and new data shows that the numbers keep climbing. While the FDA approves medical devices before release, they do not do any testing and instead rely on the manufacturers to provide accurate and comprehensive testing data.

Two St. Jude Medical defibrillators recalled due to battery defects.

Two St. Jude Medical defibrillators recalled due to battery defects.

Two examples of faulty medical devices now on the market include the Essure birth control coil and the St. Jude defibrillator. The FDA has received over 10,000 complaints from women suffering painful side effects due to the Essure birth control device. Countless lawsuits against Essure’s manufacturer, Bayer, have sprung up across the country. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA) has since introduced a bill to pull Essure off the market. Meanwhile, more than 400,000 defibrillation devices made by St. Jude Medical were the subject of a recent recall due to a faulty battery. To learn more about medical device recalls, click here.

2. Forced Arbitration: Sign a Contract, Lose Your Rights

There’s always a holiday gift year that’s a dud. Maybe you’ve received an ugly sweater three times too big or a candle that smells so terrible it gives you a headache. Unfortunately, many corporations are now giving you those ugly sweaters (and forcing you to wear them), hiding “forced arbitration” clauses in consumer and employment contracts.

This loophole prohibits Americans from taking companies to court and instead forces them into secretive arbitrations, which are typically stacked in favor of the company. An investigation by The New York Times has focused renewed scrutiny on the harm caused by forced arbitrations in claims of medical malpractice, sexual harassment, hate crimes, discrimination, theft, fraud, elder abuse and wrongful death. You can join others in petitioning Congress to ban forced arbitration right here.

3. Flint, Michigan: Lead in Water Sickens Thousands

Lead found in the Flint water supply has poisoned thousands, including 27,000 children.

Lead found in the Flint water supply has poisoned thousands, including 27,000 children.

Residents of Flint, Michigan, were exposed to dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water ever since a decision was made to switch the source of the city water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a young pediatrician known affectionately in Flint as Dr. Mona, discovered the problem when she noted an increase in the symptoms of lead poisoning in her young patients. Knowing that it was her moral and ethical duty to share her discovery with the public as soon as possible, Dr. Mona held a press conference. Michigan officials and lawmakers denounced her findings at first, only to relent when Dr. Mona wouldn’t back down. Dr. Mona continues to lead the recovery efforts.

4. Concussions and Brain Disease: NFL Settles Lawsuit

If you’re a movie fan, you probably saw the film Concussion, starring Will Smith. This movie is based on the true story of Dr. Bennet Omalu and his discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in NFL players. CTE is a disease of the brain tissue and is caused by repetitive brain trauma. CTE is associated with dementia, aggression, memory loss and depression.

Subsequent research has prompted athletic organizations to make concussion prevention and recovery a priority. This includes many “When in Doubt, Sit Them Out” laws, which mandate that any youth athlete suspected of suffering a concussion be cleared by a medical professional before returning to practice or competition. Earlier this year an appeals court upheld a settlement by the NFL with former players, setting aside almost $1 billion for medical care due to repeated head trauma. Since this lawsuit, head injuries have decreased for NFL athletes.

5. Asbestos: Still a Widespread Hazard

Asbestos may seem like a thing of the past, but any building built in the United States before 1981 is presumed to contain asbestos. And in fact, asbestos-related diseases still kill about 15,000 Americans a year. Even though asbestos is known to be extremely dangerous, the substance has not been banned in the United States. President Obama recently signed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, a bipartisan bill that strengthens ways to regulate and restrict chemical substances. Because of this bill, the EPA can officially work to ban asbestos in the U.S. 

6. Exploding Devices: Faulty Lithium-Ion Batteries

Over 1 million Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones have been recalled due to defective and explosive batteries.

Over 1 million Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones have been recalled due to defective and explosive batteries.

From e-cigarettes to hoverboards to smartphones, reports continue of everyday devices posing an unsafe explosion hazard. The culprit is lithium-ion batteries, which include unstable and flammable liquids. When improperly made devices include these batteries, the liquid can overheat and burst through the battery, igniting the device itself. These explosions have caused burns as well as property damage from subsequent fires. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recently issued a recall of all 1 million Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones, including replacement models thought to fix the problem. 

7. Prescription Drug Addiction: A National Epidemic

Prescription opiate deaths have quadrupled since 1999, killing an estimated 165,000 Americans. During the same time period, profits recorded by the drug companies that manufacture prescription painkillers have also skyrocketed. Meanwhile, a coalition of opioid manufacturers and their lobbyists have fought legislative measures introduced to stem the tide of overdose deaths.

8. Dangerous Toys: Still on Store Shelves

Nearly 260,000 kids visit emergency rooms each year for toy-related injuries, according to the CPSC. And sadly, 11 children under the age of 15 died while playing with toys in 2015. [Download report] The most common injuries include poisoning, choking, ingesting magnets or falling from riding toys. While regulators, safety advocates and the parents of injured children have succeeded in ridding store shelves of many unsafe toys, too many still get through. Learn more.

This article appeared in our December 2016 "You Should Know" e-newsletter.

You Should Know: Asbestos Still a Killer

Still Prevalent in Older Schools, Public Buildings, Homes

Asbestos is found in thousands of U.S. schools.

Asbestos is found in thousands of U.S. schools.

Asbestos is a deadly carcinogen, known to cause lung cancer and mesothelioma while killing an average 15,000 people a year in the United States. Asbestos is a group of minerals that occur naturally as a bundle of fibers, found all over the world. These fibers can be useful because they are strong, resistant to heat and many chemicals, and don’t conduct electricity. It is because of these qualities that asbestos has been used as an insulating material for hundreds of years.

Inhaling asbestos fibers is the most common way to be exposed. Although the use of asbestos is not as frequent today as it was during the early part of the 20th century, asbestos inhalation is still a persistent risk. Any time a building that has asbestos is demolished or renovated, asbestos can be released into the air. At the same time, materials that contain asbestos can break down over time and also release particles into the air. 

Changing Asbestos Legislation

Until recently the law of the land involving toxic substances was the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976. This act provided the EPA with the “authority to require reporting, record-keeping and testing requirements, and restrictions relating to chemical substances and/or mixtures.” TSCA included regulations for the production, importation, use and disposal of asbestos.

Unfortunately, this law had not been revisited for 40 years! However, on June 22, President Obama signed into law the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, a bipartisan bill that amends and updates the outmoded TSCA. The new law, which includes stricter regulatory standards, replaces TSCA’s old cost-benefit safety standard with a new health-based safety standard. This new standard opens the doors for the EPA to officially ban asbestos in the U.S., something it has been trying to do since the first Bush administration.

Preventing Asbestos Inhalation

Asbestos risks can be found everywhere, but there are ways to protect yourself and your children from exposure. Here is a brief overview, but click here for a complete guide to identifying and preventing potential asbestos risk.

At Work:

Your employer should be following all OSHA regulations for hazardous chemicals, but be sure to take your own precautions and report any unsafe working conditions.

  • Ask your employer about any asbestos-related health risks in your place of work.
  • Always wear protective gear when you may disturb asbestos.
  • Don’t bring home work clothes that may contain asbestos particles.
  • Always dispose of asbestos materials according to state and federal regulations.

At Home:

Most asbestos exposure occurs when homeowners do renovations that disturb asbestos. If you’re planning on tackling any home improvement projects, protect yourself and your family.

  • Some of the in-home items that may contain asbestos are: attic insulation, shingles and tar, drywall and popcorn ceilings.
  • If you have an older home, don’t perform DIY renovations where asbestos may be present.
  • Never attempt to remove asbestos without help from a professional abatement specialist.
  • Dangerous exposure may occur when you attempt to remove contaminated products, especially if you cut, saw, sand or drill them.

At School and Public Buildings

About half of all schools in the United States were built from 1950 to 1969, when asbestos was a common construction material. The EPA requires all schools to inspect any asbestos-containing materials every three years, as well as have an asbestos management plan in place. You can request to see a school’s management plan at any time. In addition, you can keep an eye out for any possible asbestos-containing materials, including:

  • Damaged drywall or plaster
  • Deteriorated tiles, roofing or ceiling panels
  • Chipped paint
  • Old heating or A/C 
  • Run-down steam pipes or boiler insulation
Where could asbestos be lurking in your home?  Click here  to expand.

Where could asbestos be lurking in your home? Click here to expand.

 This article appeared in our September 2016 "You Should Know" e-newsletter. 

You Should Know: Justice Served Awards 2016

People Who Make a Difference

The 2016 Justice Served Awards honor each of these nominees for their commitment to a safer, more just America. Tell us which story moves you the most (see our nominating criteria below), and we’ll enter you into a drawing for a free subscription to Consumer Reports.

Hero Doctor Wouldn’t Back Down

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha continues to  lead the fight  for kids suffering from lead poisoning in Flint, Mich.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha continues to lead the fight for kids suffering from lead poisoning in Flint, Mich.

Today we all know that the ill-fated decision to switch the water supply in Flint, Mich., from Lake Huron to the Flint River to save a few bucks in the state budget caused dangerously high levels of lead in local drinking water. But if not for Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a passionate young pediatrician at Hurley Medical Center, the threat of lead poisoning – especially to the children of Flint – might never have been uncovered.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha, or Dr. Mona as she is affectionately known in Flint, knew something was wrong when she started seeing a marked increase in rashes and hair loss in her little patients. She and her team analyzed hundreds of hospital records and found that the toddlers of Flint were suffering from extremely high lead levels in their blood. Knowing that it was her moral and ethical duty to share her research with the public as soon as possible, Dr. Mona held a press conference. But instead of taking action, state and local officials spent a week denouncing her findings and attacking her character before finally admitting she was right. Two weeks later, Flint’s water supply was switched back to Lake Huron, and an entire nation soon learned about this scandal.

Sen. Al Franken Fights for Your Day in Court

Senator Al Franken is leading legislative efforts to ban mandatory arbitration.

Senator Al Franken is leading legislative efforts to ban mandatory arbitration.

Senator Al Franken (Minn.) has spent years trying to protect Americans from “forced arbitration” clauses, which he calls “an attack on the constitutional rights of all U.S. citizens.” These legal loopholes are increasingly found in consumer and employment contracts, mandating that disputes must be settled by binding arbitration rather than in court. Because these arbitrations are closed to the public and the arbitrators are often handpicked by the company, consumers and employees almost always lose and have no right of appeal. These clauses increasingly prohibit class action lawsuits as well, eliminating another powerful tool used by consumers to hold corporations accountable.

After a young woman working for a defense contractor was allegedly gang-raped by coworkers, Sen. Franken successfully added an amendment to an appropriations bill banning the U.S. military from doing business with companies that include mandatory arbitration clauses in employee contracts. Since then, Sen. Franken has authored legislation, including the Arbitration Fairness Act of 2015 to make forced arbitration a thing of the past. This proposed law states that “no pre-dispute arbitration agreement shall be valid or enforceable if it requires arbitration of an employment dispute, consumer dispute, antitrust dispute or civil rights dispute.”

Volkswagen Lied to Customers While Polluting the Environment

Dan Carder and his small band of researchers brought Volkswagen to its knees.

Dan Carder and his small band of researchers brought Volkswagen to its knees.

Dan Carder, director of the West Virginia University Center for Alternative Fuels Engines and Emissions, knows his field of study isn’t very exciting. His research team is often overlooked and underfunded. But when the Center was commissioned to test emissions from diesel cars, the results upended Volkswagen and eventually put Carder on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

It all started in 2012 when the Center received a $50,000 grant from the International Council on Clean Transportation for an on-road test of diesel emissions standards. Volkswagen boldly claimed its diesel cars were both environmentally friendly and fuel efficient, but test after test showed that the numbers didn’t match up. In fact, Volkswagen diesels were emitting up to 35 times the safe amount of nitrous oxide gases. Eventually the company fessed up that more than 11 million vehicles were equipped with software designed to cheat on emissions tests. Since then, Volkswagen has recalled 700,000 vehicles in the United States alone and must spend more than $15 billion in settlement claims to buy back or repair the affected vehicles.

Mother Who Lost Daughter to Cyberbullying Speaks Out for Compassion

Tina Meier with pictures of her daughter Megan.

Tina Meier with pictures of her daughter Megan.

Life was looking up for Megan Meier after years spent struggling with depression and attention deficit disorder. She had just started eighth grade at a new school, had joined the volleyball team and would have her braces off soon. She also began chatting online with a boy named Josh Evans, who wanted to be her friend. Weeks later he turned on her, and soon hundreds of cruel messages about Megan were posted on a bulletin. Josh’s last message said that everyone hated Megan and that the world would be better off without her. That night Megan committed suicide. Six weeks after Megan died, her mother Tina learned that Josh never existed. His account was set up by a neighbor on their block and her daughter, a former friend of Megan’s.

Tina Meier created the Megan Meier Foundation to fight for her daughter’s legacy. The Foundation’s mission is to “Promote awareness, education, and positive change in response to issues surrounding bullying, cyberbullying and suicide.” Today Tina travels around the country, speaking to students, educators, administrators, parents, counselors, law enforcement officers and other professionals about the dangers of cyberbullying. Tina hopes that she can empower young people to celebrate individuality and accept others in order to make a kinder and safer world.

Justice Served Awards Nominating Criteria

The Justice Served Awards celebrate the stories of injured people and their families who decide to make a difference in protecting the health, safety and legal rights of others. Once a year, we ask our readers to read these remarkable stories and tell us which one touches them most, and why. Winners are chosen based on their efforts to:

  • Uncover negligence or other irresponsible behavior by organizations that put their interests ahead of the public interest;
  • Prompt government action by shedding new light on defective products, services or other practices;
  • Trigger manufacturing and quality assurance practices that lead to safer products and services; and
  • Increase public awareness that helps prevent additional injuries and protect an individual’s right to civil justice in a court of law.

 This article appeared in our August 2016 "You Should Know" e-newsletter. 

You Should Know: Tips for Keeping Loved Ones Safe at Home

Most Homes Are Not Designed to Prevent Injury to Older Americans

Storage areas for medications should be well-lit

Storage areas for medications should be well-lit

In 2013, there were 44.7 million Americans age 65 and older. As the baby boomer generation ages, that number will spike upwards to 56.4 million in 2020, 82.3 million in 2040 and 98.2 million in 2060. Most baby boomers will live longer on average than previous generations, remain independent and age gracefully, which makes “aging in place” (living at home as long as possible) an attractive option. But several studies suggest that most homes are not designed to minimize safety risks for people over age 65.

Five Tips for Keeping Loved Ones Safe at Home

Independent living and safety are not mutually exclusive. In fact, aging itself isn’t necessarily a hazard; rather it’s often the living space that needs to be updated. Here are five tips from the American Geriatrics Society’s Health in Aging Foundation to protect loved ones from home hazards:

1. Keep Emergency Numbers Handy.

Always keep a list of emergency numbers by each phone and write them big enough to read easily if in a hurry or frightened. Be sure to include numbers for the poison control center, fire and police departments, family members and the family doctor.

2. Prevent Falls.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that falls are the leading cause of injury for older Americans. Every 13 seconds a fall-related injury is treated in an emergency room and every 20 minutes someone dies from a fall.

To prevent falls, make sure all hallways, stairs and paths are well-lit and clear of objects, use rails and banisters when taking the stairs, and tape all area rugs and cords to the floor so they don’t move. Also consider a wearable alert system that allows a senior who has fallen to summon emergency personnel. Download this step-by-step fall prevention checklist.

3. Protect Against Fire and Related Dangers.

Older adults are at greater risk of dying in a home fire. They may move more slowly or have trouble hearing a smoke alarm. Smoking is the leading cause of fire deaths, so try to smoke outside and never in bed. Make sure there is a LOUD, working smoke alarm on every level of the house, in bedrooms and outside of sleeping areas. Download this tip sheet from the U.S. Fire Administration for additional information.

4. Avoid Bathroom Hazards.

Falls are the leading cause of injury for older Americans.

Bathrooms are especially hazardous for older adults, accounting for 80 percent of all falls according to the National Institute on Aging. They have slippery and unforgiving floor surfaces, and few sturdy handholds. Install grab bars in the shower and near the toilet. Put rubber mats in the bathtub. And consider setting the water heater thermostat no higher than 120 F to prevent scalding. Consumer Affairs has a number of additional tips for making bathrooms safe for seniors.

5. Prevent Poisoning.

The risk for a medication mistake increases as we age. According to 2014 Medicare records, there are more than half a million drug-related injuries that occur at home every year. Mistakes can include taking too much medication, taking the wrong medication or incorrectly mixing two or more medications.

To prevent accidental poisoning, keep all medications in original containers to avoid mix-ups, and store medications in a well-lit room so the labels are easier to read. Ask the pharmacy to put large-print labels on prescriptions. And bring all pill bottles to doctor appointments to ensure medications are being taken correctly.

 This article appeared in our October 2015 "You Should Know" e-newsletter. 

You Should Know: Common Household Products Can Put You, Others at Risk

As more chemicals are used in our homes and workplaces, it is important to know what substances are dangerous and how to avoid contamination. According a 2012 Poison Control Center report, pain medication, cosmetic and personal care items, and household cleaners were the substances most frequently involved in human exposures. The good news is that government regulators and private retail chains are helping to limit what gets used in the products we encounter daily.

Common cleaners are the number two cause of dangerous exposures in the United States.

Common cleaners are the number two cause of dangerous exposures in the United States.

In 2013, both Wal-Mart [download] and Target, two of the world’s largest retailers, announced ambitious sustainability plans. Both companies plan to bring increased transparency to the ingredients used in products and called for a reduction in especially harmful chemicals used in the products they sell. While the plans were aimed more generally at sustainability and reducing negative environmental impacts, both set strict guidelines for safer products.

The U.S. government has also joined the fight against hazardous chemicals and misleading ingredient labels. In early June, the U.S. House Committee on Energy & Commerce approved HR 2576, a bill that would expand the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976 and allow the EPA to test for and regulate hazardous substances in consumer goods and products. The bill, if passed, would also allow the EPA to evaluate substances for unreasonably risky ingredients. It would also limit any state or local government's power in regulating a chemical substance that the EPA has determined safe under its intended uses.

You Should Know How to Avoid Contamination

cleaners2

While the government and private businesses work to make consumer goods safer, it is still important to always use caution when dealing with potentially dangerous chemicals. In 2013 the Center for Disease Control reported that there were 38,851 unintentional poisoning deaths that year alone. Never mix chemicals when cleaning, and always wear gloves and wash your hands thoroughly. Dangerous products are not limited just to cleaning supplies; others come in the form of carbon monoxide, lead paints, asbestos and other harmful building supplies, as well as cosmetics and lawn care products. To avoid these dangers, use carbon monoxide alarms, always have an inspector walk through and test any new building that you may be considering purchasing, and take extreme caution when using fertilizers and pesticides.

Storing Toxic Chemicals

Keeping chemicals locked away and out of the reach of youngsters and pets is paramount to preventing accidental contamination and poisonings. When storing hazardous chemicals and cleaning supplies, always:

    •    Keep chemicals in a well-ventilated area like a garage or shed;

    •    Read labels and follow directions accordingly;

    •    Store chemicals out of reach of children or pets;

    •    Store chemicals away from food storage;

    •    Be sure containers are sealed tightly before storing;

    •    Keep soaps and dental hygiene products out of the reach of young children;

    •    Lock medicines away if possible; and

    •    Always read and follow label instructions on proper storage.

If you are ever exposed to a dangerous chemical or have a question about a product or ingredient, call the Poison Control Center Hotline 24/7 at 1-800-222-1222

 This article appeared in our September 2015 "You Should Know" e-newsletter.