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Recession-Friendly Back-to-School Shopping

Don't spend too much!

Don't spend too much!

Back-to-school shopping is an annual wallet-draining ritual, but this year, you won’t have to give up appendages to get your kids everything they need for class. Or at least not as many.

The National Retail Federation is expecting an 8% drop in spending this shopping season, the worst in more than a decade. As a result, shoppers will see stores offering better-than-usual deals. Still, there are a number of tips and tricks that might help you save money when shopping this fall.

Zach Miners of U.S. News has several great bits of shopping wisdom. Seeking and sticking to bargains is also a big money saver. Miners recommends Shop It To Me, a website that sends you email alerts about sales at major retailers. Also, shoppers can try and delay certain purchases until after school has begun. Read more »

WeMakeItSafer Wants Homes, Stores Recall Free

Jennifer Toney, founder of WeMakeItSafer.com, and her recall free family.

Jennifer Toney, founder of WeMakeItSafer.com, and her recall free family.

Two summers ago, product recalls made big headlines when numerous plastic toys manufactured in China were found to contain dangerous concentrations of lead paint. It was an eye-opening event for American consumers, yet it can still be challenging to find recalls that haven’t made the news, according to Jennifer Toney, founder of WeMakeItSafer.com.

That’s something her company wants to change. Besides the media, Recalls.gov has been a go-to website for finding out about potentially hazardous products; however, Toney, who worked as a litigation consultant for 15 years, says the site isn’t exactly the easiest thing to navigate. Read more »

Question of the Week: Are You Prepared for a Natural Disaster?

We’re coming up on the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (prepare for the media onslaught!), you might recall that New Orleans revealed just how ill-prepared the government was to handle a disaster on any scale. But it also raises the question: how prepared are you in the case of a natural disaster?

Flooded Lake Forest area of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Flooded Lake Forest area of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Ready America, a national PSA campaign from the Department of Homeland Security, gives three steps for disaster preparation. First, families, when thinking about the possibility of an emergency situation, should focus the basics of survival: fresh water, food, clean air, and warmth. The Ready America website has a checklist of suggested items to include in your kit.

The second step is coming up with an emergency plan. The crux of each family’s plan should be communication. Identifying an out-of-town contact, ensuring that your family knows each other’s phone numbers by heart, and making sure everyone knows how to send text messages (probably not an issue with the younger family members). Ready America also has suggestions specific to the type of home you live in and where you are at the time of the disaster.

Last, Ready America recommends that everyone should “be informed.” Perhaps it’s a suggestion erring on the side of vague, but their site also lists some great, concise information on everything from hurricanes to volcanoes to biological threats.

In the case of a natural disaster, are you and your family prepared? Are you “informed”? Discuss!

SPF: Sun Protection Falsehoods?

In 2008, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) reported that four out of five sunscreen products provided dangerously low levels of protection. The biggest issue, according to dermatologists, is the SPF rating system, which lacks any scientific standard. From the 1,000 products reviewed, a mere 143 brands were recommended. Most of these were less popular because they include ultraviolet-blocking ingredients like titanium and zinc, known for leaving a white residue on the skin.

Is your sunscreen really protecting you or just making you feel sticky?

Is your sunscreen really protecting you or just making you feel sticky?

But the EWG says that the sunscreen industry has changed its ways. In what they’re calling a “dramatic shift,” the number of UVA-blocking sunscreens available on the market has more than doubled since the summer of 2008. However, that still leaves something like one in nine sunscreens that offer inadequate levels of UVA protection. Be sure to check out the EWG’s list of best sunscreens.

Some other interesting and somewhat terrifying findings from the EWG:

  • Many all-day moisturizers promise SPF protection, but only one in five actually blocks dangerous UVA rays.
  • Sunscreens with SPF ratings between 55 and 100 only block 1 to 2% more UVB radiation than SPF 30 sunscreens, and are not required to block UVA rays. (UVB rays are generally considered more harmful.)
  • 42% of sunscreens contain oxybenzone, which has been shown to “disrupt the endocrine system and release reactive oxygen species that could contribute to skin cancer.”

What's Your Airbag IQ?

Safer, but safe enough?

Safer, but safe enough?

In the ’90s, airbags were scrutinized as some publicly questioned if they caused more harm than they were worth. Today, it’s widely accepted that airbags do generally make drivers and their passengers safer — the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates they saved 25,782 lives between 1987 and 2008 — but even with (and sometimes because of) recent innovations, they remain an imperfect system.

An article in the Chicago Tribune noted that recalls of cars with smart airbags reached strikingly high numbers (over 800,000) over the last year.

Airbags can cause injuries, especially to smaller passengers or drivers and children, when they rapidly deploy (often as fast as 200 miles an hour); smart airbags were supposed to solve some of these problems by measuring the weight of the passenger, the force of the impact and other factors, then determining how fast and when to deploy.

Some “high IQ” systems, however, failed to engage when they should or activated when they shouldn’t in a variety of cars made by European, American, and Asian manufacturers. No serious injuries or fatalities were reported at the time of the article, and automakers have endeavored to fix the kinks in their safety systems.

While certain factors lie outside of a motorist’s control, there are several measures that make for a safer environment in the car. Although airbags were initially presented as an alternative to seat belts in the ’70s, buckling in is unanimously recommended by experts (airbags or not), and is still your best protection in a crash.

In a car with airbags, it’s also important to note that the closer a person sits to the site from which they deploy, the more likely they are to be injured. That means drivers and passengers should keep their seats as far back as possible. The NHTSA also urges that rear facing car seats should never be put in the front according to the NHTSA and as a as a general rule, children under 13 should sit in the back.

Most cars made after 2007 have smart airbags that won’t deploy if they detect a youngster in the front (provided they’re not one of the recalled models), but many made before that year do not. If your child cannot ride in the back, it’s worth consulting your vehicle owner’s manual for info on how to turn off your passenger side airbag in case of a collision.

Those who want to check for product recalls associated with airbags can check out this NHTSA site for more information.

Question of the Week: Swine Flu – To Vaccinate or Not To Vaccinate?

There’s growing concern that swine flu (a.k.a. H1N1) could return with a vengeance this fall, and drug companies are scrambling to prepare a vaccine. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) claims there will ultimately be enough vaccine for everyone who wants it, although if initial shortages exist, pregnant women, children under 6 months, health care providers, and people between the age of six months and 24 years old will be first in line to receive it.

Worth getting? Photo by ZaldyImg.

Worth getting? Photo by ZaldyImg.

But how many people will actually want the vaccine, even when it becomes widely available? A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll stated that Americans are generally “not too” or “not at all” concerned by swine flu. The poll also noted that 55% of Americans plan to get the vaccine for themselves or a member of their household. Historically, flu vaccines have often been thrown away in large quantities because demand fails to reach expected levels.

This year could prove different. Swine flu has been a hot topic during news reports and everyday conversations, and the Los Angeles Times reports that President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology said up to two million people may be hospitalized by the disease and up to 90,000 could die from it. However, the council gave a wide range of potential deaths, starting at 30,000—the average for number of flu-caused fatalities is 30,000.

So far the CDC states that flu related deaths and hospitalizations are below or within the usual range of yearly averages, and that the number of reported cases has actually decreased in the last few weeks. Nevertheless, the possibility of a swine flu outbreak remains a real concern for health care organizations and government officials and many, although not most, people.

How concerned are you about swine flu? Will you get the vaccine when it becomes available? Discuss!

Camels Don't Store Water in Their Humps and Other Animal Myths

The animal kingdom is full of amazing creatures and surprising features. But little did you know that nature also has its fair share of lies and scandal! We’re here to dispel the most egregious animal myths.

What're you looking at?

What're you looking at?

1. Bears are slow-moving creatures Maybe at Jellystone National Park that’s the case, but everywhere else, it’s an entirely different story. Actually, bears just might not be a fan of the Baldwin brothers. Read more »

Rejected: Parents Friending Their Kids on Facebook

There’s a new website called Oh Crap, My Parents Joined Facebook that catalogs embarrassing messages and posts from parents who don’t quite “get” social networking. The site pays tribute to the new but frequent phenomenon of kids feeling like their privacy is invaded when parents send them a friend request.

This mom and daughter are Facebook friends. Or playing Battleship.

This mom and daughter are Facebook friends. Or playing Battleship.

It’s an understandable sentiment. When Facebook started, it only allowed college students to join. This designated Facebook as a space to communicate with other people the same age, stay in touch with friends, and, yes, post photos from last weekend’s frat party.

But over the past two years, Facebook has opened its doors to both a younger and older audience, and as a result, new users have come to expect different things from the social-networking site. I believe it’s this discrepancy that puts kids so on edge when their parents join Facebook. That, and the photo of them chugging beer out of a red Solo cup.

In a Washington Post article, James Madison University student Mike Yeamans explains the dilemma of accepting his mom’s friend request:

Don’t get me wrong, I love my parents, but there are some parts of my college experience that I want to keep to myself. I chose to go away to school so I could experience a little freedom.

While it’s understandable that parents are well intentioned in making sure they know what their kids are doing or where they’re going — even on the internet — the limit seems to be college-aged children. Stanford University offers a series of classes called Facebook for Parents taught by Dr. BJ Fogg, who recommends keeping track of your children if they’re under 18:

Your kids will probably complain about you “friending” them. That’s normal. But if your kids are minors, you should “friend” them. That’s our view. If you’re opposed to friending your kids, you should still join Facebook to learn how it works.

No matter what, kids are going to groan when they receive a friend request from their parents. Users do have the ability to grant limited access of their profile to certain friends, allowing them to hide any potential incriminating photos. This is normal, and in fact, should be expected.

I think it boils down to one thing: why you’re joining. Parents often join for one of two reasons — because they want to keep up with their friends on Facebook or to keep up with their children on Facebook. Either way, your kids aren’t going to like it, but if you’re on solely to keep tabs on their internet doings, then they might have a good reason to be upset.

And remember: if you say anything embarrassing enough, it could end up on Oh Crap, My Parents Joined Facebook.