- Powerful rare-earth magnets, used in many toys and especially in shape construction kits, pose big risks to kids when swallowed.
- Widely used over-the-counter genetic testing kits may subject users to major privacy concerns they never contemplated. The risks have risen enough so the Pentagon has issued a warning to service personnel.
- And owners of pricey, branded e-watches may wish to tick back their expectations as to the purported health readings the devices provide.
Without being too much of a Grinch, here are some caveat emptor warnings we all may wish to heed about popular gifts.
A watchdog’s ‘voluntary’ oversight put kids at risk
The Washington Post deserves credit for digging deep into problems at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, reporting on how its coziness with businesses it is supposed to oversee can harm the public, notably vulnerable kids.
After disturbing reports on how this has occurred with strollers, inclined sleepers, and residential elevators, the newspaper found yet another instance where regulators allowed business interests to override safety problems with youngsters and rare-earth magnets.
Toy makers market their product’s power to hook together product pieces that can be pulled apart and reassembled in various ways. They also have become a popular toy themselves, crafted into balls of various sizes and covered with a shiny coating, like the Zen magnets (shown above). Companies sell kits of these, encouraging adults and kids alike to while away time by building with different shapes with the magnets, including animals, and other structures.
But kits containing dozens or hundreds of the magnet pieces pose serious risks to kids, too many of whom can’t resist putting the shiny balls in their mouths — and swallowing them. Growing number of kids are doing this and suffering gruesome injuries, the Washington Post reported, quoting, among others, pediatric gastroenterologist Bryan Rudolph:
“Rare-earth magnets are unusually dangerous because they are often 10 times stronger than the ordinary magnets used to hold a shopping list to a refrigerator. If multiple rare-earth magnets — each the size of a BB pellet — are swallowed, they can pull together inside the intestines, potentially causing life-threatening holes and blockages. Emergency surgery is the usual result. ’This is one of the most dangerous products on the market, said [Bryan] Rudolph, the pediatric gastroenterologist who participated in the [CPSC] standards process [for the product]. Rudolph said the risks were greater than with other ingestions he sees involving children, such as coins or button batteries. ‘These injuries are gruesome,’ he said.”
The CPSC in 2012, with different leadership, banned the magnets and products with them for four years. But makers, notably the chief of Zen magnets who is cited and quoted by the Washington Post, took the agency to courts, which overturned this safety measure. Poison-control centers since have reported skyrocketing cases of kids swallowing the magnets and being injured by them, the newspaper reported:
“The nation’s poison control centers are on track to record six times more magnet ingestions — totaling nearly 1,600 cases — this year than in 2016, when a federal court first sided with industry to lift the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s four-year ban on the product. Medical researchers say the only explanation for the spike is the return of these unusually strong magnets to the market after the court ruling. Now, with the CPSC largely sidelined, magnet industry officials have launched a new effort to prevent product injuries and deaths through voluntary safety standards. Used for thousands of consumer products, these voluntary standards are supposed to reflect a balance between business and safety interests. But during the creation of voluntary standards for magnets, the priorities of safety groups and regulators have been drowned out by the desires of manufacturers, who often decide which safety options are considered and hold an advantage in voting on which rules will take effect …”
Safety advocates and some commission members have criticized the leeway that voluntary standards give to industry, handcuffing regulators until sizable numbers of cases occur — meaning many people suffer. This has occurred at the agency with other products, such as furniture that tips over too easily. As the newspaper reported:
“In the magnets case, which played out over recent weeks, manufacturers drew clear limits on how far they were willing to go for safety. They would consider only standards that ‘don’t change the utility, functionality and desirability of the product for adults,’ Craig Zucker, who runs a magnet company, said in an email to others on the committee deciding the proposed safety rules. But safety advocates said that the committee should look at anything that might avoid accidents. Otherwise, Don Huber, director of product safety for Consumer Reports, said in an email to the committee, ‘I am struggling to see how it will be anything beyond a marginal improvement.’”
This is not good. In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them and their loved ones by defective and dangerous products, notably those of the medical variety.
The holiday season, happy as I hope it was for all, illustrated all too well again the relentless hype and lax protection consumers have these days from dubious and risky claims. Lots of us, no doubt, paid too much of our hard-earned money to try to please our loved ones, especially the young, with that perfect gift — or at least what advertising and marketing campaigns had convinced them they just had to have.
But who helps us debunk unfounded claims, especially if the CPSC and other watchdogs get chained up or worse by business interests and the politicians who think that safety and quality concerns shouldn’t stand in the way of the almighty buck.
That can lead to other consumer challenges ….
Pentagon warns about over-the-counter genetic tests
Americans have made a booming business out of taking over-the-counter genetic tests, whether out of idle curiosity, to gain more information about their ancestry, or even to get dubious information on health matters.
Privacy and health officials long have hollered, jumped up and down, and tried to warn the public that, popular as the tests may be, they are fraught with legal, medical, and other issues that users rarely take the time to consider.
Test vendors keep insisting they simply want to provide a service to enlighten the public. And they offer pledges to protect users highly confidential personal data.
But rising numbers of cases and court rulings not only have undercut companies claims. They also should make test subjects wonder about issues, such as whether fifth-cousin Vinnie’s test might implicate them in a serious crime — or vice versa. The tests also can upend lives with disclosures about unexpected branches in the family tree.
And, while consumers long have had reason to be suspicious of the profit-seeking motives of the testing outfits, some of which have cut major deals with drug companies hungry for valuable patient data, the Pentagon now has weighed in on this matter:
Joseph D. Kernan, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, and James N. Stewart, the assistant secretary of defense for manpower, just wrote jointly to U.S. forces to warn that direct-to-consumer tests “could expose personal and genetic information, and potentially create unintended security consequences and increased risk to the joint force and mission,” the New York Times reported, noting that Yahoo News first disclosed this warning.
They did not name any DNA testing companies but cautioned members of the military in general “against buying ancestry and health tests promoted with military discounts and other military incentives,” the newspaper said.
A Pentagon spokesman declined to discuss the risks that top brass fear the tests pose. But he said the military wants its personnel to get top-notch health care and not to rely on information from testing that may not meet the most rigorous. They should not make decisions about their lives or work based on such data.
The New York Times also noted that the military itself may be put in awkward positions if it were to learn that service personnel might have health conditions that would affect their duties or advancement:
“Genetic tests have more serious employment implications for members of the military than the average office worker, said Frederick Bieber, an associate professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School, who served as an Army Reserve officer at the DNA Identification Lab in Rockville, Md. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act — known as GINA — prohibits discrimination by health insurers and employers based on the information that people carry in their genes. It does not apply to members of the military, however. ‘The military can make decisions about operational readiness,’ Dr. Bieber said, whereas ‘in the civilian world there are prohibitions about it.’ If a DNA test shows that someone has carrier status for sickle cell trait, for example, he said it could limit advancement in some aviation specialties.”
That new e-watch isn’t quite that smart — yet
Apple not only has kept at improving its watch, it also has stepped up the claims for features of the electronic device. The moves may have made the watch one of the hot, must-buy gadgets over the holidays, especially among young consumers.
But there’s reason to consider with care the hype from Cupertino, Calif, especially about the watch’s heart monitoring feature, reports Aaron E. Carroll, an M.D., a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine and the Regenstrief Institute, and a health policy expert writing for the New York Times “Upshot” column.
He noted that the company has pushed hard the idea that the Apple Watch’s pulse detecting capacity extends further and can be useful in detecting a serious condition called atrial fibrillation, aka AFib (“A fib”). As he wrote:
“An estimated six million people in the United States — nearly 2% [of us] — have atrial fibrillation, a type of irregular heartbeat that brings increased risk of events like clots, heart attacks and strokes. It’s thought that about 700,000 of people with the condition don’t know they have it. A selling point of the watch is a sensor that can monitor a wearer’s pulse and potentially detect atrial fibrillation.”
Apple wanted to enhance the credibility of this claim, so it worked with researchers to study its device and AFib, enrolling 42,000 watch wearers. To be clear, some of the test subjects worked for Apple, as did some of the researchers. The company funded the study, about which the newspaper reported:
“Participants were monitored for about four months. Over that time, 2,161 of the study participants were notified of an irregular pulse, representing just over 0.5% of the sample. Those people were offered telemedicine visits and, if their symptoms were mild, were offered electrocardiogram patches to wear for up to a week to help confirm a diagnosis of atrial fibrillation. Participants mailed the patches back and, if the results indicated an emergency, were contacted immediately and instructed to receive care. If the results were positive for atrial fibrillation but did not require immediate medical attention, the participants were offered a second telemedicine visit and instructed to see their regular physician. But only 450 of the 2,161 people who were notified about having an irregular pulse returned their sensor patches for evaluation. This means that among those who signed up for the study, wore the watch and got a health alert, almost 80% ignored it. Of the 450 participants who returned patches, atrial fibrillation was confirmed in 34%, or 153 people. Those 153 are about 0.04% of the 420,000 participants.”
What to make of the study, its results, and AFib screening? Carroll says users should be skeptical. Those aren’t huge findings. Other ways of screening exist, and some are pretty darn good already. Further, it’s unclear whether mass AFib screenings are a good idea. Over testing, over diagnosis, and over treatment are major problems in medicine, leading to patient harms and driving up costs, without necessarily improving outcomes.
The Apple device may pave the way for other advances. But for now, young people — who may be healthier and not so subject to AFib, for example — may want to evaluate their wants and needs for the e-watch for other reasons besides screening for a heart condition.
By the way, folks, you do look mighty silly taking advantage of the watch’s walkie-talkie function and yelling at your wrist and your friends. Hello, Dick Tracy!