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Beware: Air purifiers have a history of fire hazards

Updated on June 21, 2015

Air purifiers are ticking time bombs that could ignite your home!

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Home. The word congers up thoughts of warmth, comfort, safety and security. Can you imagine suddenly being removed from your home and transported to gray, grim surroundings?

That happened recently to a friend. He left his cozy Florida apartment, locked the door and drove to his job. When he returned he found fire had destroyed his home. His creature comforts had been reduced to charred wood, burnt fabric, blistered paint, melted plastic and ash. In one brush stroke the blaze had smeared the lively decorated residence with grimy hues of black and gray. And the air in the apartment and the clothes that escaped the flames were filled with a putrid smell of smoke.

What turned this young man’s life upside down? His air purifier. The device he operated to remove dust, debris and allergens in the air suddenly exploded, reducing his home to rubble.

I was shocked when I heard this story and immediately turned to the Internet to determine if this was a freak accident or whether there’s been a history of fires caused by faulty air purifiers.

It turns out that in 86 million American homes a device designed to improve the environment is a ticking time bomb that at any moment could burst into flames or explode.

China plays a major role in this story. The Floridian's faulty air purifier was made by a Chinese company. The defective device was allowed to leave the factory because manufacturers in China don’t have to meet the strict safety standards found in America.

China's Tainted Goods Caused by Corruption & Corner Cutting

When China’s economic giant was born three decades ago, business owners followed a centuries old system of government corruption and new “cutthroat capitalism.” This Chinese corner-cutting has resulted in a huge number of faulty products being shipped out of their country.

Annually over $466 billion in merchandise is exported from China to America.

Chinese-made goods annually account for 60% of the product recalls in America, according to the U.S. Consumer Product and Safety Commission (CPSC). Among the defective Chinese-made items U.S. consumers have bought:

  • poisoned baby food
  • tainted pet food
  • toxic toys
  • faulty tires
  • defective cribs that trapped and killed babies while they slept

You may recall the controversy over toxic Chinese sheetrock (or drywall) used by contractors rebuilding homes destroyed by 2005’s Hurricane Katina. The high demand for building materials in Louisiana and booming subdivisions in Florida, at that time, prompted many builders to use inferior Chinese-made drywall.

Tests done on this drywall showed it released sulfur gases that corroded electrical and plumbing components, air conditioning and refrigerator coils, microwaves, computer wiring, faucets and copper tubing. In addition to the headaches, nosebleeds and respiratory problems experienced by people living in the homes.

The CPSC “agrees that regulations in China are not as stringent as many U.S. rules,” reports Consumer Reports. But with a limited staff the CPSC can’t be an effective consumer watchdog. Donald Mays of Consumer Reports told NPR that the CPSC only has 400 full-time employees – 15 of them assigned to the docks to prevent unsafe products from entering the U.S. "There are over 300 ports," Mays said. "Fifteen people can't cover them all."

Only 15 Consumer Product Safety Watchdogs Cover U.S. Ports

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Fires from Air Purifiers Occurred at Homes, a Jet and a Hospital

Ask 100 Americans if they ever heard about exploding Chinese-made air purifiers and I venture to guess only one or two will know about them. But a check of the CPSC website shows numerous recalls of air purifiers for fire safety concerns, including: Aprilaire, Daikin, Thane and 3M’s Filtrete. These defective devices were manufactured in China.

The 2014 Daikin Streamer air purifier recall is typical. The Daikin product was recalled due to overheating circuit boards or fan motors that caused the device to burst into flame or emit smoke, according to the CPSC and The Japan Times. These Chinese-made air purifiers sold for approximately $540 at various retailers, including Amazon. The CPSC urged consumers to immediately unplug the air purifiers and discontinue using them.

Other examples of air purifier failures:

In 2007, a passenger aboard Continental Airlines was injured when the personal air-purifying device worn around his neck burst into flame. The fire prompted the pilot on the jet headed to Portland, Ore. to make an emergency landing in Colorado Springs, Colo. Following the incident, the manufacturer of the personal air purifier, known as Fresh Air Buddy, recalled the product.

While a fire in a personal purifier was unusual, there were several house fires throughout the U.S. caused by defective devices. Typical of these blazes is a 2014 fire in Aberdeen, Md. that was caused by a faulty air purifier, according to the Maryland State Fire Marshal. Nobody was home at the time of the afternoon blaze. The origin of the flames was traced to a malfunctioning Chinese-made air purifier in a bedroom. The fire did $40,000 worth of damages to the one-story home and its contents.

In 2008, a maternity ward at a Great Barrington, Mass. hospital was evacuated due to smoke from a malfunctioning air purifier.

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Safety Official in Chinese Government is Executed

The challenges caused by China’s tremendous growth is not limited to poor manufacturing practices. The most populous nation in the world also has the planet’s deadliest air pollution, according to the World Health Organization.

But in 2007, it appeared that China was setting out to improve its record on environmental and manufacturing issues. At that time, the government took steps to correct its putrid air and the head of China's drug and food safety regulatory agency was executed for accepting bribes to approve a toxic Chinese toothpaste that killed 100 people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. As it turned out, nothing has substantially changed. These measures were part of a P.R. campaign designed to make China look its best on the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Suits Slowly Go Through Chinese Courts

So what resource does a consumer, who suffers a house fire, injury or death caused by a defective Chinese-made product, have? Very little, according to the business and legal community.

"It's very difficult for importers who run into trouble with products they're importing from China, it's difficult to pursue legal action against those Chinese companies," Paul Midler of a Chinese consulting firm told NPR. Midler is the founder of China Advantage, a company that promotes reputable Chinese manufacturers who produce high quality goods.

In addition, a suit in the Chinese courts can take several years because it must contend with a very crowded court calendar.

In 2012, "more than 12 million trial and appellate cases were before the courts, more than China's roughly 200,000 judges can comfortably handle. In that year, they had to cope with more than 6.6 million new civil cases," according to World Politics Review.

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Consumers must use the U.S. Court of Public Opinion

The main avenues open to consumers who want to take action against companies that market these unsafe products are domestic suits and public pressure. Such is the case with Lumber Liquidators, which in 2015 was the focus of a “60 Minutes” exposé. The CBS News program reported the company was selling Chinese-made laminate flooring that contained cancer-causing formaldehyde at levels higher than permitted by law.

At first, Lumber Liquidators President Rob Lynch defended the quality of the flooring and attacked the testing conducted by “60 Minutes.” Eventually, Lumber Liquidators took the product off its shelves in response to an outpouring of concerns expressed by Senators, customers and shareholders.

Lumber Liquidators also took a hit in its coffers. The month following the “60 Minutes” report the company’s stock dropped over 50% and sales slipping nearly 14%. Over 100 class-action suits relating to the unhealthy Chinese laminate flooring were filed against Lumber Liquidators. And the U.S. Justice Department is seeking criminal charges.

Three months after the “60 Minutes” report, Lynch resigned as company president. The news report also had a rippling effect on another retailer. Lowe’s home improvement centers stopped selling the unhealthy line of Chinese-made laminate flooring. –TDowling

© 2015 Thomas Dowling

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