Getting the word out on recalls

Two months have passed since five people in their 70s and 80s were killed in a fire at a Nagasaki City group home for people suffering from senile dementia. The fire on the night of Feb. 8 underlined not only the inadequacy of regulations for installation of sprinklers at such facilities but also problems related to defective products.

It surfaced that a humidifier used at the Nagasaki facility is likely to have started the fire. Electronic parts maker TDK Corp.announced Feb. 22 that “there is an extremely strong possibility” that its KS-500H humidifier caused the fatal fire.

The company started selling the humidifier in September 1998, and told the then Ministry of International Trade and Industry in January 1999 that it had begun a recall of the product and that it had stopped its production and sale. Although the company’s recall remains in effect, it has so far received only about 5,500 units — roughly a quarter of the units it sold.

As this case shows, it is important for companies and the central and local governments to set up an effective system for preventing accidents from defective products. After the fire at the Nagasaki group home, the Consumer Affairs Agency decided to ensure that information about product recalls is conveyed to individual consumers without fail. But this is a daunting task given the size of Japan’s domestic market.

When products such as electric and electronic appliances and heating devices are found to be the likely cause of fires or other accidents, the usual practice is for makers or importers to issue recall notices and repair the products once consumers send them in. In some cases, companies provide consumers with replacement products or simply issue refunds.

Many manufacturers make earnest efforts to recall defective products, and they, the importers and the Consumer Affairs Agency upload such information onto their websites. But there are limits to what they can do, and all too often consumers never learn of the recalls.

According to the Consumer Affairs Agency, from the beginning of 2012 to the end of January 2013, 109 serious accidents, including fires, occurred involving recalled products. Other data show that during a five year period ending in March 2012, some 670 such accidents occurred.

Under the present system, makers and importers have the primary responsibility to recall defective products. To increase the effectiveness of recalls, the government should ask retailers to share some of the responsibility for product recalls. Since stores often have detailed information on customers, including contact information such as email addresses as well as home addresses, they should be able to greatly increase the dissemination of recall information.

Local governments could also help to spread the word on product recalls via community associations, facilities for aged people, nursing care providers, and parents and teachers associations. The Consumer Affairs Agency should consider using networks of consumer organizations for the same purpose.