Clearing the Air
Date Added: June 18, 2004
E-mails that appear to spring from someone's own tragedy and impart a universal warning are intensely popular. Unfortunately, most of them resemble urban legend more than consumer advisory and are questionable at best. This is one of those.
A friend sent me this
Friends: My brother and his wife learned a hard lesson this last week. Their house burned down...nothing left but ashes. They have good insurance, so the home will be replaced and most of the contents. That is the good news. However, they were sick when they found out the cause of the fire.
The insurance investigator sifted through the ashes for several hours. He had the cause of the fire traced to the master bathroom. He asked my sister-in-law what she had plugged in in the bathroom. She listed the normal things....curling iron, blow dryer. He kept saying to her, "No, this would be something that would disintegrate at high temperatures." Then, my sister-in-law remembered she had a Glade Plug-in in the bathroom. The investigator had one of those "Aha" moments. He said that was the cause of the fire. He said he has seen more home fires started with the plug in type room fresheners than anything else. He said the plastic they are made from is a THIN plastic. He said in every case there was nothing left to prove that it even existed. When the investigator looked in the wall plug, the two prongs left from the plug-in were still in there.
My sister-in-law had one of the plug-ins that had a small night light built in it. She said she had noticed that the light would dim....and then finally go out. She would walk in a few hours later, and the light would be back on again The investigator said that the unit was getting too hot, and would dim and go out rather than just blow the light bulb. Once it cooled down, it would come back on. That is a warning sign.
The investigator said he personally wouldn't have any type of plug in fragrance device anywhere in his house. He has seen too many burned down homes.
Thought I would warn you all. I had several of them plugged in my house. I immediately took them all down.
At first glance, this one seems very similar to an earlier warning about gel candles. Unfortunately, as in that case, the author of this one failed to provide sufficient information to validate the tale. We don't know the identity of the author, nor that of his or her brother or his wife. There are no dates and no location, nor are the names of the fire department or inspector given. So, in other words, all we have to go on is an anonymous author's recounting of a warning given to his brother from an unnamed fire inspector. At best, we can label this one hearsay.
A month after this one began circulating, newer versions picked up a signature that make it appear to come from a fire inspector with the Scarsdale, NY, Fire Department. Since his signature was not part of the original message, it is reasonable to assume that this attribution is another case of False Attribution Syndrome.
So, does the warning this possibly apocryphal tale supposedly illustrates at least have merit? Is it possible and probable? Kelly M. Semrau, Director of Global Public Affairs and Communication for SC Johnson & Son, Inc., the makers of Glade Plug-in air fresheners, assures consumers that the product is safe and this warning unfounded:
"SC Johnson recently learned that there have been postings on the Internet that have claimed that our products were involved in fires. It is important that you know that all of our PlugIns® products are safe and will not cause fires. We know this because PlugIns® products have been sold for more than 15 years and hundreds of millions of the products are being used safely.
"Because we are committed to selling safe products, SC Johnson thoroughly investigated these rumors. First, we confirmed that no one had contacted SC Johnson to tell us about these fires or to ask us to investigate them. Additionally, we had a leading fire investigation expert call the fire department representative who is identified in one of the Internet postings. That fireman indicated that he has no evidence that our products had caused any fire.
"We suspect this rumor may be associated with a past SC Johnson voluntary recall of one of its air freshener products, a Glade® Extra Outlet Scented Oil product that was sold for a short period before June 1, 2002. After discovering an assembly error in a small number of that product, SC Johnson implemented a voluntary recall and provided extensive information about the product to the U.S. Consumer Safety Commission (CPSC). After revising the manufacturing process and thorough testing for proper assembly, the Glade® PlugIns® Scented Oil Extra Outlet product returned to store shelves on June 3, 2002. SC Johnson has no knowledge of any credible reports of fire related to this product.
"We also know that our products do not cause fires because all of our PlugIns® products have been thoroughly tested by Underwriters Laboratories and other independent laboratories and our products meet or exceed safety requirements. SC Johnson continues to work closely with the Consumer Product Safety Commission to investigate allegations involving PlugIns® products.
"As a more than 100-year-old, family-owned company, SC Johnson is committed to providing top quality products that can be used safely in homes and we want to reassure you that PlugIns® products can be used with complete confidence."
In addition to the recall described in the company's statement above, SC Johnson recalled about 5 million Glade Plug-Ins in 1994, after 600 consumer complaints, 12 involving fires. The chain letter currently circulating describes the product that supposedly cause the fire as a Glade Plug-Ins Extra Outlet Night Light. Neither the 1994 or 2002 recall involved this model.
Many people have contacted me to relate their own experiences with air-freshener related fires, or those of close relatives. I have even seen arson reports that specify electrical short-circuits in plug-in type air fresheners as the cause of the fire. Most investigators can't say definitively, however, whether the shorts were caused by defective air fresheners, improper house wiring or improper use of the device.
Nonetheless, what we have above is an urban legend-style warning of a hazard some believe to widespread, but for which the evidence is inconclusive. Break this chain.
References: Snopes.com, TruthOrFiction.com, About.com, SC Johnson