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Tylenol, Tampons & Other Famous Product Recalls

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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)

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:]

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”