Cheap foreign lighters flood America, fail tests, injure thousands

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by Mark Greenblatt / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on November 22, 2011 at 11:04 PM

Updated Tuesday, Nov 22 at 11:41 PM

HOUSTON— Fifty-five-year-old Bill Clemmer had always been told smoking cigarettes might kill him one day.   He probably never thought an exploding lighter would get to him first.

The lighter in question, a Chinese-made import labeled with the “MK” brand, allegedly flared and “exploded” in his pants pocket one spring day in April 2008, not long after Clemmer had put it there following a cigarette break. 

The incident will now become part of a new, national investigation by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which confirmed early Tuesday evening to KHOU-TV that it will investigate all types of lighters that the Chinese manufacturer of the “MK” imports into the United States.   Scott Wolfson, a spokesperson for the CPSC, says the company imports “potentially millions” of lighters and says the CPSC will conduct a “thorough” investigation.            

In the case of Bill Clemmer, his “MK” lighter exploded while  he was working at a machine shop in Stephenville, TX.  When Clemmer’s  younger brother Ricky arrived on scene,  he said third-degree burns had blackened Bill Clemmer’s upper body.

“You didn’t know how to touch him, he had skin hanging off his hands,” his brother Ricky Clemmer said.   “It’s just, shocking. It just stunned me.”

Federal records show the lighter malfunction is far from an isolated case.   A KHOU-TV review of internal records at the Consumer Product Safety Commission reveals the federal government estimates 917 cigarette lighter malfunctions happen every year, leading to medical treatment of people involved.  In addition, the government estimates annual property and other damages totaling $31 million a year.    

The widespread problems started to come to light ten years ago, when the American lighter industry began to complain to the federal government about cheap, unsafe lighters flooding American markets from overseas. Part of the issue is that the CPSC only has “voluntary” minimum safety standards when it comes to the manufacture and design of lighters.

Experts say that standard worked reasonably well when American manufacturers dominated the domestic market.  However, with the growth of imports being sold in this country, the same experts also say that many foreign lighters are below even the voluntary standard and are a safety risk.

The domestic lighter industry has pressed for “mandatory” safety standards for cigarette lighters, partly on the basis of what representatives say is the unfair competitive edge that foreign companies have when they don’t meet the present voluntary rules. The proposed mandatory standards have been set by ASTM International, an independent global organization widely recognized as a reputable industry safety resource for more than 12,000 products.  Many products sold in the U.S. must, by law, meet ASTM standards to be marketed here. Not so with lighters.

The CPSC estimates that three out of four lighters sold in America are made overseas, with nearly two-thirds of those imports made in China.  In government tests aiming to see how well its “voluntary” compliance policy was working, the CPSC found 70 percent of lighters made in China failed to meet the ASTM standard.

In addition, the CPSC eventually concluded the cost for bringing those “failing” lighters up to par would be minimal.  In fact, federal officials declared it would be “reasonable” to estimate a cost increase of “a penny or two” per lighter to make them meet the safety standard. 

On Dec. 1, 2004, the Commission issued a press release saying it had formally voted to “start” development of mandatory standards.

“A mandatory standard for cigarette lighters… would help reduce fires, deaths, and injuries,” Former CPSC chair Hal Stratton said in the press release.

The release also cited thousands of cases where people “went to hospital emergency rooms for injuries resulting from malfunctioning lighters. Most of these injuries involved thermal burns to the face, hands, and fingers.” 

In 2005, respected consumer groups, such as the Consumer Federation of America, urged the CPSC to continue pushing forward, writing a letter to the Commission urging them to adopt stricter standards. 

However, in the six years that have passed since Rachel Weintraub penned that letter, the government has done little more to enact the new standards.

“There’s a big difference between voluntary and mandatory standards,” said Weintraub, director of product safety for the Consumer Federation.  “If they were made mandatory they would serve to further protect the public health.”

Weintraub said the CFA stands by its position it originally took from 2005, three years before Bill Clemmer’s Chinese-made MK lighter allegedly blew up.

“I think the data has been, unfortunately, building up,” she said.  “This is an issue the CPSC should look at in a more robust way than they have over the last few years.”

A forensic engineer hired by the Clemmer family investigated the accident and later declared the lighter itself had a number of safety defects and an overall poor design.  

Dr. John Geremia, an engineer with  nearly four decades of experience working with cigarette lighters, said defects on the lighter caused it to fail, allowing debris to pile up, blocking the butane gas seal from fuelling closing. As a result, he says the butane continued to leak from the lighter even after Clemmer had put it back into his pocket, allowing a small flame to continue to burn.  Geremia believes that fire went unnoticed because of the lighter’s silver flame guard. He says, at the same time the liquid butane eventually expanded and spread on to many parts of Clemmer’s clothes, which then combusted.

The family said Clemmer sustained burns to 55 percent of his total body surface area, including third-degree burns to his groin and upper body, chest, abdomen, back, neck, face, and scalp. 

His younger sister Aletta visited him regularly in the burn unit emergency crews rushed him to.  

“They had him so bandaged up, you really couldn’t see,” she said. “I could remember going over there, and talking to him and tears coming out of his eyes, and that was hard.”

After 28 days, Bill Clemmer eventually passed away.

The surviving members of the Clemmer family sued the Chinese manufacturer of the lighter, Zhuoye Lighter Manufacturing, claiming the lighter was, “unreasonably dangerous, defective, and otherwise unsafe.” 

Craig Sico, the lead attorney representing the family in federal court, tracked the company down and served them in the Hague, pursuant to international law.

Nonetheless, the manufacturer, based in Guangdong, China, never showed up to defend itself in American federal court.   Hence, a federal clerk entered a “default” notice into the court file.

“Since the Chinese company did not answer and defend its product the American public is the clear losers,” Sico said.  Sico, and his partner David Harris, fear the pattern is repeated again and again.  

“Often times, dangerous foreign products are distributed in this country with disastrous results, and no recourse for the injured consumer because the U.S. distributor has little, or no assets available to meet the victims needs,” Sico said.   

The family also sued the American distributor of the MK lighter, which settled the case out of court. But Sico believes the manufacturer itself is culpable, claiming Zhuoye simply set up the American distributor, Zhouye USA, to shield itself from more serious legal liability.

“The Web page for each company shows they are related companies,” he said. “It is our belief that Zhuoye US is a shell company to protect the intellectual property of the Chinese parent company while distributing its defective and dangerous products in the United States.”

KHOU-TV’s I-Team found the same “MK” lighters Zhuoye makes on sale at Houston area wholesalers, for just eight pennies per lighter.  We also found the same lighters available for purchase by the public in local convenience stores.

Product safety consultant Sean Kane, of the product safety firm Safety Research and Strategies, says with no “mandatory” rules for manufacturers to abide by, cheap and dangerous products will continue to flood the marketplace, which he says receives products which cannot be sold in Europe or Canada, where tighter rules exist.

“The United States is definitely a dumping ground for low-cost lighters that don’t meet a minimum standard,” said Kane.  “That’s a problem. We don’t want to see more people getting burned, and injured from these products.”

Kane consulted with the Clemmer family on their lawsuit, and points to the CPSC’s own reports and statements as reason the American public should be concerned. 

The CPSC estimated in its own documents that “65 percent of these lighter failures resulted in fires, leading to 4 deaths and some serious injuries. The information in these reports showed that malfunctioning lighters mostly resulted in fire and explosion hazards.”

“The truth is, the costs today to get a lighter compliant are probably no more than a couple of cents per lighter,” Kane said.

KHOU contacted both the U.S. distribution company and the Chinese mainland manufacturer of the “MK” to get comment on the allegations about their product and any other information they might want to provide. At press time, we have not heard back from either entity.

The CPSC declined to interview for this story, choosing to send written comments instead.   Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for both the CPSC and its chair, said the CPSC stood by the number of injuries and deaths its staff attributed to malfunctioning lighters in their internal reports written five years ago. 

He also did not disagree with anything said by consumer or safety groups about the situation, and explained the Commission’s inaction by noting how busy the CPSC has been.

“We agree with the Consumer Federation of America, Safety Research & Strategies, and the industry that the safety of imported cigarette lighters is important,” Wolfson said. “CPSC staff stand behind the research conducted and data gathered as part of the initial rulemaking process, and we promise to keep consumers informed if federal rulemaking moves forward.   Yet at this time, our hardworking staff is actively engaged in efforts to save lives and prevent injuries from gel fuel used in firepots, upholstered furniture fires, portable gas generator poisonings, tables saw amputations, bassinet entrapments, and many other product dangers.”

The Clemmer’s attorney Craig Sico reviewed this statement and noted, “I am prepared to challenge the CPSC. If their claim is they care, or are here to protect us from dangerous products, they need to step to the line.  We have proven the MK lighter is defective and dangerous. We need the assistance of our federal government to help protect and regulate foreign trade. It is time for us as Americans to stand up and demand either our rights to protect ourselves or the government to properly represent us.”

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