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Tylenol, Tampons & Other Famous Product Recalls

Ford just announced it is recalling over 4.5 million vehicles due to a faulty switch that can overheat and catch fire. Of course, cars aren't the only things that get recalled. Every year, dozens of foods, drugs, and consumer products get yanked from shelves for some reason or another. Here are a few surprising or particularly large product recalls:

1. Tylenol (1982)

In the fall of 1982, taking a Tylenol was the absolute worst thing a Chicagoan who felt a little under the weather could do. Why? Because the capsules were laced with cyanide. Someone had apparently removed the painkillers from store shelves, poisoned them, and then returned them to kill unsuspecting shoppers.

Johnson & Johnson, which made Tylenol, was at a loss for what to do in the face of a national fury over poisoned medicine. Eventually the company recalled every single bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol from the nation's pharmacies at a cost of $100 million. On top of that, J&J swapped out any capsules consumers already had in their medicine cabinets.

While authorities never caught the killer, some good did come from this tragedy. The poisonings sparked the advent of tamper-evident packaging for over-the-counter drugs, so we can all feel a little safer with our Tylenol today.

2. Olive Oil (1993)

The extra-virgin olive oil we love to use for salad dressings and other delicacies tastes great, but it comes at a price: it's expensive and difficult to make. Since most palates can't pick up subtle differences in the quality of the oil they pick up at the supermarket, there's a powerful incentive for unscrupulous producers to make an easy buck by diluting their "extra virgin" olive oil with much cheaper products.

Although most countries supposedly monitor the purity of their olive oil exports, in practice this regulation can be somewhat lax, which has resulted in recalls from time to time. In 1993, the FDA forced Cincinnati company Rubino U.S.A. to recall all of its shipments of "olive oil," which as it turned out were just regular old canola oil. Other grocery chains have been hit since.

3. Rely Tampons (1980)

relyIn 1975, Procter & Gamble released a new brand of tampon called Rely, which it marketed with the slogan "It Even Absorbs the Worry." Unlike traditional cotton tampons, Rely's wares were made with a cellulose derivative and compressed beads of polyester. As a result, Rely's product was far more absorbent than the average tampon; a Rely could absorb up to 20 times its own weight in fluid.

All of that absorbency sounded like a selling point when Rely hit the market, but it turned out there's such a thing as a too absorbent tampon. The hyper-absorbent tampons severely dried out users' vaginas, which led to flourishing bacterial growth, abrasions, and toxic shock syndrome.

By 1980, the CDC had uncovered the mechanism behind all of these cases of toxic shock syndrome, and Procter & Gamble initiated a voluntary recall of all Rely tampons on the market, a move that cost the company $75 million. The episode didn't scare P&G out of the tampon market permanently, though; in 1997 it bought market leader Tampax for a reported $2 billion.

4. Burger King's Poké Balls (1999)

In late 1999, Burger King ran a $22 million kids' meal promotion to give away Pokémon toys. Each of the collectible critters came in one of the game's signature Poke Balls, a small egg-like container. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparently that while the Pokémon figures themselves were perfectly safe, the plastic balls posed a serious suffocation risk to kids. Due to the ball's shape and size, it fit perfectly over the nose and mouth of small children.

A 13-month-old girl in California suffocated on a ball in December 1999, and reports of other children having near misses with the balls led to a massive recall of the containers. The company spent millions on the recall campaign and ended up destroying over 30 million of the toys.

5. Hydroxycut (2009)

hydroxycut
You can't watch TV without seeing an ad for Hydroxycut, a nutritional supplement that promises to help rotund viewers easily shed pounds of flab. Earlier this year, though, the Food and Drug Administration gave Hydroxycut quite a punch in the well-defined stomach when it announced the supplement could cause serious health problems, including jaundice, seizures, and liver failure.

With potentially lethal side effects like these, Hydroxycut's manufacturer, the Canadian company Iovate Health Sciences Inc., had to recall all of its products. The company didn't stay out of the weight-loss game long, though; it quickly introduced a new-and-improved product, Thermogenic Hydroxycut Advanced.

6. Sony Laptop Batteries (2006 & 2008)

fireIf you owned a laptop in 2006, chances are you had to spend some time reading serial numbers to make sure your battery wasn't a fire or explosion risk. The Sony lithium ion batteries in question began showing a tendency to overheat, which could damage users' laptops or start small fires. In August 2006, Dell and Apple began recalling Sony batteries that were at risk for exploding or igniting, and by the end of the year over 8 million total batteries were part of the recall.

One would hope that Sony would have figured out how to keep its batteries from combusting after such a giant recall, but apparently not. In late 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced that Sony was recalling another 100,000 laptop batteries for similar reasons. [Image credit: softpedia.com.]

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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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Ho, No: Christmas Trees Will Be Expensive and Scarce This Year
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The annual tradition of picking out the healthiest, densest, biggest tree that you can tie to your car’s roof and stuff in your living room won’t be quite the same this year. According to The New York Times, Christmas trees will be scarce in some parts of the country and markedly more expensive overall.

The reason? Not Krampus, Belsnickel, or Scrooge, but something even more miserly: the American economy. The current situation has roots in 2008, when families were buying fewer trees due to the recession. Because more trees stayed in the ground, tree farms planted fewer seeds that year. And since firs grow in cycles of 8 to 10 years, we’re now arriving at a point where that diminished supply is beginning to impact the tree industry.

New York Times reporter Tiffany Hsu reports that 2017’s healthier holiday spending habits are set to drive up the price of trees as consumers vie for the choicest cuts on the market. In 2008, trees were just under $40 on average. Now, they’re $75 or more.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get a nice tree at a decent price—just that some farms will run out of prime selections more quickly and you might have to settle for something a little less impressive than in years past. Tree industry experts also caution that the shortages could last through 2025.

[h/t New York Times]

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