Danger lurks in holiday packages

December 04, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

It's still three weeks to Christmas, and already I've been wounded in battle.

It's just a little paper cut - the result of trying to slide too large of a box into a too small of a mailing envelope, the edges of which sliced across my palm as smoothly as anything made by Gillette. I'm fine, really, no blood transfusions necessary, and as for the scarring - well, I wasn't planning on a second career as a hand model anyway.

But it's a sign of things to come. We are officially in the danger zone.

'Tis the season, in Don Mays' eyes, "of doom and gloom."

He laughs, but Mays has a unique view of the holiday season from his perch as the product safety czar of Consumer Reports magazine.

While the rest of us might see the bright lights, the coveted toys, the lavish gifts of the season, he sees ladder spills, lead poisoning and the increasingly common hand gashings from those impenetrable clamshell packages.

"This time of year, there are a lot of things to be concerned about," Mays says. "This time of year, you really have to focus on safety."

No kidding. After talking to Mays and others, I might just spend the holiday season sitting in a dark, undecorated house, eschewing lights (wires can contain lead), trees (real ones could burn, fake ones might have lead), candles (another fire hazard), presents (where to begin?) and all the other hazards of the season.

I certainly won't leave the house to drive anywhere. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, guess which are the deadliest days on the road? Actually, the 4th and 3rd of July are first and second, but following closely behind them are the three days before Christmas.

And shopping? While we did manage to get through Black Friday without the insanity of past day-after-Thanksgiving melees - remember the Cabbage Patch casualties, the Tickle Me Elmo tussles, the $29-DVD tramplings? - that doesn't mean it's safe out there.

No, Mays said, a record 25 million toys have been recalled this year, most for one of the big three dangers when it comes to the safety of playthings: lead paint, small magnets or toxic chemicals. Mays suggests checking his magazine's safety blog and the Consumer Product Safety Commission Web site to keep up to date on all the recalls.

Mays blames the rash of unsafe toys out there on the recent tendency of the toy industry to "speed the market" by developing and getting new products on the shelves fast. "It short-circuits the testing process," he said.

Even if the gifts you choose are lead-, magnet- and toxin-free, you still have one more worry: the dreaded clamshell that encases many small items, particularly electronic gadgets. The thick plastic is a retailer's dream - you can see the product, but not so easily shoplift it - but a consumer's nightmare. If the knife, blade or ax you wield manages to cut the clamshell but not your own hand, the now-cut edge of the plastic itself will draw the blood.

Consumer Reports has started giving out "The Oyster Award" for the products most imprisoned by their packaging; this year's winners (or losers, actually) are the Oral-B Sonic Complete Toothbrush Kit, encased in multiple clamshells, a foam case and plastic bags, and the Bratz Sisterz dolls, trapped in their box by about 50 restraints, CR said.

Such secure packaging has even spawned its own seasonal disorder during this holly jolly time of year: wrap rage.

Which, in turn has spawned a host of products you can buy to treat it.

"This is how all good ideas start - with rage," jokes Michele Pyle, one of the so-called "Designing Women" who came up with an idea for a new product called Open It. It's one of a number of tools out there - others are called Package Shark and iSlice - meant to shuck your product from its clamshell.

Pyle, whose husband is the general manager of Zibra, the company that made and sells Open It, said she and her friends were commiserating about the impossibility of opening clamshells, untwisting multiple twisty-ties and wires and freeing CDs and DVDs from shrink wrap and sticky tape - and came up with one tool to address all those frustrations. (Plus it has a screwdriver to get into all those battery casings.)

After testing it in a limited number of stores, Open It is now available nationwide in time for the wrap rage season. And, Pyle says, although it's packaged in plastic-topped cardboard, there's a cutout in the cardboard that will easily free it.

"You can get it out," Pyle promises, "without it."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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