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How to protect your family

The Baltimore Sun

Consider for a moment that a staggering 467 products were pulled off the market in the United States last year - a record-high level, according to consumer groups.

It can make a consumer's head spin trying to keep up with product recalls, from all-terrain vehicles that pose a fire hazard to Cinderella earrings that contain dangerous levels of lead.

Just yesterday, Mattel recalled Batman figures and Polly Pocket dolls containing magnets that can be swallowed. In June, it was defective tires and toxic toothpaste. And who can forget the tainted pet food recall in March?

Since the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and other agencies can't possibly test every product out there, it's nearly impossible for the government to guard you completely from all potentially hazardous products.

There are, however, a few steps you can take to protect you and your family:

Canvass your home.

Go through your house and visit to check "Recalls and Product Safety News" for information on everything from household products to specialty items such as fire alarms. All children's toys should be checked.

If you find a toy that has been recalled because it contains lead, use a damp cloth to wipe down all other toys that came into contact with the lead toy, said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety and senior counsel at the Consumer Federation of America in Washington. Lead dust can be hazardous to children. To be on the safe side, toss toys that are chipping paint.

Follow manufacturer instructions.

Should you find a product that has been recalled, don't just toss it out in the garbage, Weintraub said. Contact the manufacturer of the product and follow its instructions, whether it means sending the product back to the company or disposing of the item carefully.

Don't automatically avoid "Made In China."

"The vast majority, about 80 percent, of toys sold in this country are made in China," Weintraub said. "If you just focus on avoiding toys or products from China, you undershoot and overshoot the problem."

Consumer groups and various governments around the world are pushing for stronger regulations and independent third-party testing on components and the final product when it comes to imported products.

Avoid metal jewelry.

Lead is the ultimate hidden hazard. Consumers can purchase lead test kits, but Weintraub said, "We don't think that consumers should be doing chemistry on their toys."

All metal jewelry should be avoided, consumer groups say. As a rule, Weintraub said, it's best to avoid all inexpensive metal jewelry for kids.

"So many recalls have taken place in this category that we make it a mandatory rule to recommend against this type of jewelry," she said.

Check consumer Web sites.

It's hard to keep up with all the defective, hazardous and unsafe products in the marketplace, but it can be a little easier if you frequent Six federal agencies joined to create the one-stop shop for U.S. government recalls.

Before you purchase anything, you should make it a habit to visit the portal, which links you to Web sites for the CPSC, Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, Coast Guard (which posts recalls on boating equipment) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (which covers tire safety and auto recalls).

If you have a particular category of interest, some of the sites offer instant e-mail alerts when a recall is issued in that product category.

Don't assume anything. Just because a product makes it to store shelves doesn't mean that it has been inspected for safety. Check the recall lists.

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