The Consumers' Observation Post

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PERSONAL INJURY LAWYERS FIRST KNEW ABOUT FIRESTONE'S alleged tire defects back in 1996, but repeatedly decided not to tell federal safety officials, for fear the officials would ruin their budding cases, according to The New York Times. As a result, says the Times, the tires remained on the market for another four years before they were subject to a massive recall last summer--and more than 190 deaths were attributed to the tires over this period. Although anecdotal reports of problems with the tires began surfacing prior to last summer, regulators made little progress investigating the allegations until trial lawyers were persuaded to share information, the Times asserts. The resulting flood of data into a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) database of complaints alarmed Ford Motor Company enough to force Firestone to make the recall. Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety (CAS), a consumer activist group, also knew of the alleged defects because a former employee was assisting the lawyers in their investigations, according to the Times. Ditlow reportedly "urged" his former CAS employee "to share his knowledge with regulators, but [the former employee] had been leery of doing so."

"It's outrageous--I can't say that enough," says Dr. Ricardo Martinez, the NHTSA administrator at the time and a trauma physician. "If I saw something was killing my patients and I didn't say anything because that would reduce demand for my services, I would be putting my benefit over the benefit of my patients and the public, and that would clearly be unethical."

JUST IN CASE: General Motors has developed a sensor system to help prevent children from becoming ill or dying in dangerously hot vehicles, Motor magazine reports. A new low-energy radar sensor can detect motion such as that of an infant asleep in a safety seat. Once a child (or pet) is detected and the temperature is at or about to reach potentially dangerous levels, the sensor will trigger the horn to sound three distinct chirps. GM plans to start introducing the technology in large SUVs and passenger vans beginning in the 2004 model year.

The company plans a publicity effort--in conjunction with the National SAFE KIDS Campaign--to alert people to the risks of leaving children unattended in cars. On a 95 [degrees] F day, the inside of a car in sunlight can reach 122 [degrees] in 20 minutes and 150 [degrees] in 40 minutes, Motor reports.

ANTIBIOTIC-RESISTANT BACTERIA might be getting into the food supply, according to microbiologists. Science News reports accounts of such tainted food were presented at a recent meeting of the American Society of Microbiology. In one case, researchers with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) identified Enerococcus faecalis and other normally harmless bacteria in brand-name, factory-packaged cuts of raw meat from local supermarkets. (E. faecalis is an indicator of fecal contamination.) The bacteria turned up in 67% of chicken cuts, 34% of turkey, and 66% of beef surveyed, according to the newsweekly. At least some of the bacteria in each sample proved resistant to multiple antibiotics. Although these bacteria were benign, other tests reported at the meeting showed that resistance can be transferred from one species to other, more harmful species. (See "When Antibiotics Fail to Work," CR, October 1995.)

The FDA is beginning a program to tests meats weekly in Iowa in anticipation of a national monitoring program for antibiotic resistance in meat.

YOU CAN KEEP ACCURATE TIME several ways. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) offers the following sources: Time broadcasts can be heard on the telephone for the price of a long-distance call. The two numbers are (303) 499-7111, for a simulcast of WWV short-wave radio broadcasts in Colorado, and (808) 335-4363, for WWVH announcements from Hawaii. You can also go to …