How to read a toy recall

The Consumer Product Safety Commission recently released a "Play it Safe" poster with a macabre version of Operation. A nauseated child stands in for Cavity Sam. In place of his Adam's Apple, there's a deflated balloon. His Writer's Cramp has been replaced by a non-specific shattered arm bone. His Bread Basket is filled with tiny high-powered magnets. 

The poster reminds parents that seemingly harmless toys can land even older children on an operating table, and may be the CPSC's most effective method yet of getting parents to sign up for e-mail recall notices

If you subscribe to those notices, you'll get an e-mail once a week or so warning you of product recalls. Recently, for example, the CPSC recalled children's sleepwear that violated flammability standards. You can stop panicking about whether your kid's new jammies were in that recall--in all likelihood they weren't, as only 950 units were sold. You probably didn't buy them. 

If you're still worried--and what parent wouldn't be now that we've raised the prospect of ignited pajamas?--check out my piece about why you needn't fear pajama fires. I'll be here when you get back. 

You probably feel better about pajamas now, right? The problem is that the next recall won't be about pajamas. It will about something else, like the CPSC's recent whopper e-mail with seven separate hoverboard recalls. If a hoverboard is on your holiday shopping list, can you still buy it? This recent round of recalls might make you think twice. 

But think a third time, because if you learn how to read a toy recall, you can make less fear-driven, better-researched decisions.

Is this the only safe hoverboard you can buy?  PC: sweetlouise for Pixabay

Is this the only safe hoverboard you can buy? 

PC: sweetlouise for Pixabay

Company or Brand Name

A brand name alone cannot tell you whether a product is safe or unsafe, but it can give you clues to a product's safety. 

What company makes fidget spinners? What company makes hoverboards? Your answer is likely "I don't know," because at the start of both of these crazes, no one company held a patent on these items. That means the market was flooded with cheaply-produced versions of the toys. 

If you look at the seven hoverboard models included in this round of recalls, you'll see some signs that the products were produced to less-than-rigorous standards. Six of the companies included in these recalls--Drone Nerds, Go Wheels, iHoverspeed, iLive, Sonic Smart Wheels, and Tech Drift--are all Chinese. The fact that six out of the seven recalled hoverboards is made in China (the origin of Smart Balance Wheel's hoverboards is not mentioned in its recall) is not in itself a cause for concern, as that's where huge volumes of toys sold in the U.S. come from. The fact that seven different companies with unfamiliar names, six of which are produced in China, suggests that there was no market leader ensuring product safety. When Adario Strange declared the hoverboard dead in 2016, he blamed the lack of a trusted brand that could be held accountable to safety standards: "Most brands are indistinguishable from one another. There is no 'iPhone of hoverboards.'"

Hazard versus Incident

Each CPSC recall includes a description of the potential hazard. All seven of the hoverboard recalls identify the lithium-ion batter packs as the source of danger, because they "can overheat, posing a risk of smoking, catching fire and/or exploding." 

Reading the identical hazard in near-identical product recalls may make you worry about a hoverboard purchase. The batteries themselves are not dangerous. Lithium-ion batteries power nearly all of the rechargeable electronics in our homes. We let kids near computers, phones, and vacuum cleaners, so there's no reason to fear the battery in a hoverboard. 

To get a more accurate sense of the danger, we need to look at the hazard alongside any known incidents. CPSC product recalls include any known incidents or injuries (essentially, damage to property or people). Drone Nerds, iHoverspeed, and Tech Drift have no reported injuries. iLive and Go Wheels each have one report of overheating, but no injuries or property damage. One Smart Balance Wheel hoverboard caught fire and caused an unspecified amount of property damage, but no injuries. Sonic Smart Wheels has no injuries, but one big incident: a Louisiana house fire that caused $40,000 worth of damage. 

The incidents reported are severe, and it is easy to see how they could have ended in injury or death. The severity of the incidents alone may make you wary of buying any hoverboard, but you need one more piece of information before making a decision. 

Units Sold

If you look at the recalls for the two hoverboards linked to house fires, you'll see that very few of each model were sold. 1,000 Sonic Smart Wheels hoverboards and 700 Smart Balance Wheel hoverboards were sold. Those numbers should encourage you to return a hoverboard purchased from one of those companies. 

The "units sold" number, along with the incidents and injuries reported, can help you understand overall risk. If you're one of the 700 people who bought a Smart Balance Wheel hoverboard, you may have cause for concern. Now imagine that there were 350 fires associated with those hoverboards. You'd be lining up to return it, because your odds of a fire would be roughly 50-50. Now imagine that Smart Balance Wheel had sold one million hoverboards and had only one report of fire. You'd be in less of a hurry to return it. 

In general, the number of units sold, combined with the severity of injuries and incidents, can help you decide whether to keep or return a specific toy listed in a recall. That calculation can also help you determine whether a whole product category is dangerous. This recall roundup included 13,900 hoverboards, over half of which came from one company with no reported incidents (iLive). Although 13,900 would be a huge number of hoverboards in your house, it's a tiny number for toys sold throughout the U.S. 

Compare that number of recalled hoverboards to the 2016 recalls, in which a half-million hoverboards were recalled. Those numbers should have made you concerned about buying any hoverboard, not just those included in the recall. 

Context

The last piece of information you need is one a recall can't provide: context. If you see a batch of recalls like the hoverboard one, it often helps to search for previous recalls of similar products. The injuries and incidents that led to the 2016 recall all resulted from the relationship between the hoverboards' batteries and circuit boards. In short, the batteries couldn't supply enough power to the computers and were overheating as a result. 

The 2016 recalls led to a new hoverboard standard that requires electrical certification in order to be legally sold. That's probably why so many counterfeit sellers on Amazon include "UL 2272" in their listings. The only way to know if the product is actually UL-certified is to look for the holographic UL sticker on the product itself. You can report any suspicious products here

So, can you buy a hoverboard? If you learn to read product recalls, you shouldn't have to Google that question. Instead, you can rely on your own research skills and personal risk tolerance to make decisions that work for you and your family.