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A defect on tires has links to China

Imported valve stems may cause tires to fail. One recall issued; a US agency is investigating.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 16, 2008

Poisonous pet food. Lead paint on children's toys. The latest potentially defective Chinese import to hit American shores: tire-valve stems, the rubber shafts that allow motorists to fill their tires with air.

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There are at least 36 million of the imported valve stems on tires on American roads. Any of them could cause dangerous tire failures this summer.

Already, a lawsuit has blamed a defective tire-valve stem for a crash that killed a Florida driver. One US importer issued a formal recall this month; another alerted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which has begun an investigation. Earlier this month, the federal agency issued an advisory to motorists to check their tires for wear but said nothing about valve stems.

Most of the valves in question, which are said to crack prematurely, appear to be on tires sold between September 2006 and June 2007.

The extent of the problem won't be known until NHTSA completes its investigation, says an agency spokesman. But some independent safety experts say motorists should be warned to inspect the tire-valve stems immediately.

"The company [that imported most of the tires] has issued a technical bulletin, but nobody seems to know about it," says Sean Kane, an auto-safety consultant with Safety Research & Strategies in Rehoboth, Mass., which issued its own public warning Thursday. "We need to know because the public is entering the high-risk summer season, and this is a real problem that potentially affects millions of vehicles."

'A potential defect' noted

The investigation appears to stem from a lawsuit filed after the fatal crash in November of Robert Monk of Orlando, Fla. In March, his widow sued Dill Air Controls Products, blaming its tire-valve stem for causing the right rear tire of her husband's SUV to fail, precipitating the vehicle's rollover. Shortly after the suit was filed, the Oxford, N.C., company approached NHTSA with a report of "a potential defect." The agency last month began investigating the valve stems the company distributes in the US.

Some 30 million suspect valve stems were manufactured over a five-month period in 2006 for Dill by Topseal, a subsidiary of Shanghai Baolong Automotive Corp., based in Shanghai, according to NHTSA's preliminary summary of its investigation. In May, Dill issued a technical bulletin to its customers: "We have received a number of parts showing surface cracks on the outside of the rubber near the rim hole.... Out of an abundance of caution, we are recommending that when customers return to your stores for regular service, you inspect the valve stems on vehicles who received valve stems during the period September 2006-June 2007."

The Orlando attorney for Mr. Monk's widow says more should be done.

"They talk about an 'abundance of caution' but aren't really following through," says Richard Newsome. "With summer vacation coming up and families taking trips, the right thing to do for consumers is issue an order to check valves and look for cracks."