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.
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."
The company counters that it is taking appropriate action.
"We are working with an independent rubber laboratory to determine exactly which lots during the suspect time period may crack due to ozone exposure, which will be a small portion of the total. When the results are in, we can determine our next steps," says Brian Rigney, general manager for Dill Air Control Products in an e-mail. "In the interim, we plan to publish a bulletin on our website with instructions on how a consumer can inspect their valve stems (regardless of the manufacturer), since it can be seen on the rubber portion of the stem outside the wheel." [Editor's note: The original omitted the company's response.]
Mr. Kane, the auto-safety consultant, says the valves could deteriorate and crack in as few as six months. Dill's suspect valves were manufactured more than 1-1/2 years ago, from July through November 2006, according to the company.
On June 2, another auto-parts importer, Tech International of Johnstown, Ohio, issued a formal recall notice for 6 million valve stems made by a Chinese company with nearly the same name – Shanghai Baolong Industries Co., Ltd. – and the same address. Dates of manufacture of the defective product are also the same.
In its recall notice, Tech said, "the defect is such that after the valve stem has been in service approximately six months or more, the rubber compound may undergo cracking," resulting in loss of tire pressure. It blamed the defect on "improper mixing of the rubber compound in the manufacturer's facility." Calls Friday to Tech International and an attorney representing the company were not returned.
No basis yet for national alert
For its part, NHTSA says the Tech recall is a good enough reason for consumers to have tire valves checked. But until the Dill investigation is complete, there's not enough basis for a national alert.
"We monitor all forms of vehicle equipment, and we're always on the lookout out for abnormal rates of failure," says Rae Tyson, a NHTSA spokesman. "We are looking at every aspect of these valve stems.... We can't presume defects till we've completed an investigation."
In response to public outrage over contaminated pet food and lead paint on toys made in China, Congress moved last year to bolster the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. But a bill to boost commission funding and force it to notify consumers of unsafe products more quickly has not yet passed.
The agency does not oversee tires.
"Congress and whatever agency [involved in overseeing Chinese imports] don't do enough," says Peter Navarro, a business professor at the University of California at Irvine. "It's very hard because they're understaffed and underbudgeted."