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. She calculated that using the government site to check each item in one’s home for recalls would take “at least 58 hours, assuming 500 products, which is probably fewer than most of us own.” People often don’t have that kind of time to dedicate to a search, and as a result many potentially dangerous possessions go undetected (WeMakeItSafer estimates the average house has five undiscovered recalled products). Toney’s site hopes to speed the process up by shifting from a text-based search to categorization by images.
“Rather than looking for each specific item that may or may not be in the recall database, consumers instead look through images of recalled products for something they own,” she said.
Using that alongside an advanced search feature can reduce the amount of time it takes to search 500 products to one to two hours. WeMakeItSafer also offers a bimonthly newsletter that keeps subscribers updated about products recently deemed unsafe, which can be received by emailing InformMe@WeMakeItSafer.com.
About 400 different products, totaling 77 million units, were recalled last year, and number that will likely increase by about 10% next year if a recent trend holds true. As a parent, it’s an issue close to Toney’s heart. Indeed kids-related recalls are on the rise, in part because new legislation—spurred by the lead paint fiasco—kicks in over the next few years, extending safety requirements for kids products and making them easier to be recalled. However, it’s not just kids’ stuff that fails to meet safety standards.
In order for a product to be recalled, the government has to determine it poses a real possibility of causing injury or harm to a consumer, not just that it’s defective; alongside toys and children’s accessories, bikes, household appliances and computers (especially laptop batteries) top lists of recent recalls.
Online market places and thrifts sometimes carry these products, and often have difficulty tracking recalls—large retailers that sell new items generally avoid these problems, but do occasionally have problems with items arriving at their stores after they’ve been recalled, Toney says. To combat these issues, WeMakeItSafer.com offers a pay service that allows these companies “to check their inventory for recalls electronically.” A WeMakeItSafer seal can be imbedded into electronic listings, as well as onto physical tags for stores, allowing consumers and the government to see that a company’s product line is recall free.
Currently, Toney says, only about 20% of recalls are found, and that number falls to as low as 10% once an item actually enters the home. Toney and her company aim to increase those percentages, and make people and their homes that much safer in the process.