Product Recalls Throughout History That Straight Up Scared Us

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Vote up all of the most frightening recalls.

Consumers would like to believe the products they buy are safe. But as voluntary or forced recalls of countless products have proven over the years, even the most innocuous-looking items can have hidden dangers. Some are the result of negligence (e.g., exploding Ford Pintos) or deliberate intent (e.g., the Tylenol and Excedrin poisonings), while others occur despite the manufacturer implementing safety precautions.

And some products, like the tainted infant formula in China or the morning sickness remedy thalidomide, can have horrifying consequences that last long after the products are pulled from circulation. Many items - from toys that pose suffocation hazards to furniture that tips easily - can be especially dangerous to small children.

When a product recall goes public, it can frighten or panic consumers. The items below are some of the scarier recalls in recent history.

  • 1
    407 VOTES

    Thalidomide, A Drug Used For Morning Sickness, Caused Birth Defects

    Developed in the 1950s by a West German pharmaceutical company, thalidomide was originally meant to be used as a sedative or tranquilizer. But it soon became popular for a range of conditions, including morning sickness in pregnant women.

    Early testing led to the belief the drug was harmless to humans. By the late 1950s, it was marketed under various brand names in nearly 50 countries - all under license from pharmaceutical company Chemie Grünenthal. The US, however, was not one of those nations - the FDA rejected the drug due to a lack of evidence that would refute reports of patients developing nerve damage in their limbs after using thalidomide for a long period.

    In the 1950s, doctors and scientists were unaware the drug could harm a fetus, so none of the tests on thalidomide involved pregnant women. But in 1961, Australian doctor William McBride had a letter published in The Lancet that was the first public acknowledgment of a link between the drug and babies with birth defects affecting their arms, legs, hands, and/or feet.

    In November 1961, Chemie Grünenthal withdrew thalidomide; UK distributors followed suit a few days later. But the British government didn't issue a formal warning until May 1962. The drug was on the market for less than five years. But in that time it's estimated more than 10,000 babies worldwide were affected by their mothers' use of thalidomide; approximately half of those babies didn't survive more than a few months.

    In 2016, scientists at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute discovered the reason the drug caused birth defects. It turns out thalidomide promotes the degradation of a wide range of cell proteins that help switch genes on or off - including one called SALL4. The result is the complete removal of SALL4 from cells. This interferes with limb development and other aspects of growth in fetuses, resulting in birth defects. Ironically, the same gene-switching effect is now being studied as a treatment for certain cancers.

    Although no one was ever convicted of a crime for marketing or distributing the drug, the thalidomide scandal did lead to changes in the pharmaceutical industry - one major change being that drugs meant for humans would no longer be approved solely on the basis of animal testing. And drug trials for substances marketed to pregnant women would also be required to show evidence that they were safe for use in pregnancy.

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    325 VOTES

    Recalls In Chinese Infant Food Created Years Of Mistrust

    Over the course of 10 days in 2008, Zhang Wei, a urologist in China's Gansu province, treated four infants for kidney stones. As these are rarely found in babies and children, the doctor reported the cases to hospital administrators. As he told a Chinese newspaper:

    This made me tremble as a doctor, I felt there might be a common reason behind these cases.

    The hospital reported the cases to the province's health bureau, which in turn reported them to China's national health bureau. At first, no one was sure if there was a common link. They tested samples of milk powder used in infant formula, and the samples passed safety qualifications. But in September 2008, China issued a national food safety emergency after melamine - a chemical used in the production of fertilizer and plastic - had been found in baby formula.

    In all, 22 companies were involved in the scandal. The main culprit was the Sanlu Group; 11 batches of infant formula produced by the company tested positive for melamine. The Sanlu Group had begun receiving complaints from parents about babies developing kidney stones after consuming its infant formula in December 2007, but didn't start testing its products until May 2008. And because national standards didn't require testing for melamine, the company didn't start checking for the compound until late July of 2008, after hearing that dogs and cats in the US had passed after eating melamine-laced pet food in 2007.

    In August 2008, the Sanlu Group discovered melamine in protein powder supplied by local farmers, who added the chemical to milk to boost the protein levels and pass nutritional tests. The amount found in this powder was more than four times the tolerable daily rate set by the US Food and Drug Administration.

    Because China was hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics, the Sanlu Group and Fonterra, its New Zealand-based dairy company partner, began recalling their products, but originally only reported their findings to the local government. It only became a national and global scandal when reports eventually went to China's central government.

    The government pressured lawyers not to take on plaintiffs' claims against the Sanlu Group. Instead, the government held a series of prosecutions. The chairwoman of the Sanlu Group received a life sentence, and several other executives received shorter prison sentences for failing to stop the production and sale of the formula even after learning it was dangerous. And a dairy farmer and a supplier who provided the company with tainted powder were executed in 2009 - the same year the Sanlu Company declared bankruptcy.

    At least six babies died, and more than 300,000 became ill, after consuming melamine-tainted infant formula. Many suffered permanent kidney damage. In the aftermath of the scandal, the Chinese government instituted a series of new safety regulations specifically for infant formulas.

    Despite the new regulations, consumers' distrust of Chinese-made infant formula remained high for more than a decade following the scandal, resulting in a high demand for formula produced in other countries.

  • Over a handful of days in late September and early October of 1982, seven people living in the greater Chicago area mysteriously died after taking Tylenol capsules. Investigators discovered all the victims had been poisoned, as the capsules were laced with cyanide.

    Later that October, a few more bottles of tainted capsules turned up in Chicago-area stores, but fortunately none had been sold or used. McNeil Consumer Products (a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson), the manufacturer of Tylenol, quickly launched a media campaign to warn consumers of the danger and issue a recall of the more than 31 million bottles in circulation. The company also offered a reward for anyone with information that would help find and arrest whoever was responsible.

    No guilty parties were ever discovered, although New York resident James Lewis wrote to Johnson & Johnson claiming to be the killer and demanding $1 million in exchange for him stopping the poisoning. Investigators determined Lewis had no connection to the deaths. He was, however, convicted of extortion and sentenced to 20 years in prison (he was released after serving 13).

    Within weeks of the poisonings becoming public, Tylenol's share of the over-the-counter pain reliever market dropped from more than 35% to less than 8%. In response, Johnson & Johnson worked with the FDA to quickly develop packaging with seals that made it easy to recognize if tampering had occurred; this packaging soon became the standard for all OTC medications. They also introduced a coated caplet that was harder to tamper with than the old capsules. These moves helped Tylenol regain much of its lost market share.

    In 1983, Congress passed the Federal Anti-Tampering Act, which made a federal offense to tamper with consumer products.

  • 4
    262 VOTES

    A Radiation Therapy Machine Killed Patients With Overdoses

    In 1983, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited put its new radiation therapy machine, the Therac-25, on the market. It had more complete computer control than earlier such machines; most of the safety checks were taken over by software, with the hardware safety interlocks being removed. Because the Therac-25 received FDA approval by declaring premarket equivalence, it didn't go through the FDA's rigorous testing procedures. Shortly after introducing the Therac-25, AECL performed a safety analysis of the machine using a method that calculated the probabilities of the occurrence of hazards such as radiation overdoses.

    From July 1985 through April 1986, AECL received five notifications of patients treated with the Therac-25 who received radiation overdoses. After the first notice, the company sent an engineer to investigate, informed the FDA and the Canadian Radiation Protection Board of the incident, notified all machine users of the problem, and issued specified instructions to operators about visually confirming the hardware settings before using the machine. 

    Believing the issue was a failure in a microswitch, AECL redesigned the hardware, which it then modified in all machines in use. It wasn't until a second overdose at a facility in Tyler, TX, that engineers were able to reproduce the overdose and the sequences leading up to it.

    They filed a medical device report with the FDA, which ordered AECL to contact all sites that used the Therac-25, investigate the incidents, and submit a corrective action plan. AECL ended up recommending a temporary fix involving removing some keys from the keyboard at the computer console. Unhappy about how AECL had informed the sites of the danger, the  FDA required AECL to again notify all sites with more specific information about the defect and the danger of overdosing patients.

    But in February 1987, after another overdosing incident that involved a different software defect, the FDA and the CRPB ordered all Therac-25 machines in use to be shut down until permanent effective changes were made. Six months later, the FDA approved AECL's corrective action plan.

    Several survivors and families of deceased patients sued AECL and the facilities that had used the Therac-25. All of the cases ended up being settled out of court.

  • 5
    254 VOTES

    Mad Cow Disease Caused A Massive UK Beef Panic

    In September 1985, an autopsy on an animal in Sussex, England known as Cow 133 went public; it had succumbed to a brain disorder called spongiform encephalopathy at the time. By the end of 1986, after more and more cows passed, a new disease name joined the medical lexicon - bovine spongiform encephalopathy - also called BSE and known more commonly as "mad cow disease."

    Investigators learned that the deceased cows had probably contracted BSE after eating contaminated meat and bone meal, a type of feed comprising leftovers from animal carcasses, including cows. The British government banned meat and bone meal from cattle feed in 1988. But by then, an estimated minimum of 1 million cows infected with BSE had been used in some sort of human food product.

    Two microbiologists, Prof. Richard Lacey and Dr. Stephen Dealler, argued that meat infected with "mad cow disease" could cause a fatal brain disorder called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. Both scientists faced backlash - Dr. Dealler was even removed from his research post.

    In June 1990, after France and then-West Germany had banned imports of British beef, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared in a session before Parliament that "British beef is safe." But the ban soon spread to other parts of the European Union, and wasn't fully lifted until 2006. The economic impact in the UK was huge. Domestic sales of beef fell by approximately 40%; combined with the EU ban, the total cost to the British economy was estimated at between £740 million and £980 million.

    Although the peak of human exposure to "mad cow disease" in Britain occurred from 1986 to 1990, the damage remains. Recent studies found that at least 156 people in the UK passed in the 1990s from vCJD after eating tainted beef, validating the warnings from Lacey and Dealler. The World Health Organization has said that patients with the disease usually experience depression, apathy, anxiety, and cognitive impairment. They also develop difficulty walking and controlling their limbs. By the time of death, patients are "completely immobile and mute," according to the WHO.

    The first British person confirmed to have succumbed to vCJD was Stephen Churchill, who was 19 when he passed in May 1995. However, it wasn't until March 1996 that the British government publicly admitted that eating contaminated British beef could result in a person developing the incurable disease.

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    283 VOTES

    The Children’s Toy Aqua Dots Contained A Date-Rape Drug

    Aqua Dots was a toy designed for children 4 years and older that let them create artwork by arranging colorful beads into a pattern, then spraying the beads with water, sealing them together.

    In November 2007, Spin Master Ltd., the toy's manufacturer, pulled Aqua Dots from store shelves after three toddlers went into comas after swallowing the beads. Although two recovered, 18-month-old Ryan Monje suffered permanent injuries, including brain damage. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission also announced a voluntary recall of the estimated 4.2 million Aqua Dots sold after April 2007.

    Investigators discovered the beads were coated with a compound that, when ingested, would break down into gamma hydroxybutyrate. It's more commonly known as the date-rape drug GHB and is particularly toxic to young children.

    Monje's parents sued, claiming that Spin Master Ltd. and Moose Enterprise Pty. Ltd. - an Australian distributor of the beads - deliberately substituted the toxic GHB coating for a safer coating that would have cost more money to use.

    In June 2015, a jury awarded the Monjes $435,000 in damages, although the family said they would appeal the amount because their attorneys were prevented from presenting evidence that demonstrated the full extent of the harm suffered by their son.