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    The Healthy Geezer: Liver Spots Aren't All Dangerous

    The Healthy Geezer

    Q. Do liver spots have anything at all to do with the liver? A. No. This is a common question and a great starting point for a column about all those doohickeys that grow on our skin as we age.

    LIVER SPOTS The official name for liver or age spots is "lentigines" from the Latin for "lentil." These are flat, brown with rounded edges and are larger than freckles. They are not dangerous.

    KERATOSES Seborrheic keratoses are brown or black raised spots, or wart-like growths that appear to be stuck to the skin. They are harmless. Actinic keratoses are thick, warty, rough, reddish growths. They may be a precursor to skin cancer.

    CHERRY ANGIOMAS These are small, bright-red raised bumps created by dilated blood vessels. They occur in more than 85 percent of seniors, usually on the trunk. These are also not dangerous.

    TELANGIECTASIA These are dilated facial blood vessels.

    SKIN TAGS These are bits of skin that project outward. They may be smooth or irregular, flesh colored or more deeply pigmented. They can either be raised above the surrounding skin or have a stalk so that the tag hangs from the skin. They are benign.

    Now we get into the cancers of the skin.

    SQUAMOUS CELL CARCINOMAS These are in the outer layers of the skin. They are closely associated with aging. These are capable of spreading to other organs. They are small, firm, reddened nodules or flat growths. They may also be cone-shaped. Their surfaces may be scaly or crusted.

    BASAL CELL CARCINOMAS These are the most common of the skin cancers. They develop in the basal layer below the surface of the skin. Basal cell carcinomas seldom spread to other parts of the body. They usually appear as small, shiny bumps or pinpoint, red bleeding areas on the head, face, nose, neck or chest.

    MELANOMAS The melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. Melanomas can spread to other organs and can be fatal. They usually appear as dark brown or black mole-like growths with irregular borders and variable colors. They usually arise in a pre-existing mole or other pigmented lesion.

    Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. About half of all Americans who live to 65 will have skin cancer. Although anyone can get skin cancer, the risk is greatest for people who have fair skin.

    Ultraviolet radiation from the sun is the main cause of skin cancer. All skin cancers can be cured if they are treated before they spread. The most common warning sign of skin cancer is a change on the skin, especially a new growth or a sore that doesn't heal.

    Check your skin often. Look for changes in the size, shape, color, or feel of birthmarks, moles, and spots. And don't be reluctant to go to a doctor whenever you see anything on your skin that you suspect might be a problem.

    Dermatologists recommend that, if you are a fair-skinned senior, you should get a full-body skin exam once a year. This kind of check-up isn't a bad idea for any senior.

    All Rights Reserved © 2007 by Fred Cicetti

    The Healthy Geezer: Liver Spots Aren't All Dangerous...
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    FDA Confirms It Found Plastic in Tainted Pet Food

    Wheat Gluten from Asian is the Suspected Source

    It may not just be rat poison that's causing dogs and cats across the country to become sick and die after eating Menu Foods' tainted products.

    The Food and Drug Administration announced today that its scientists -- and an independent laboratory -- found a chemical commonly used in plastic in samples of the 60 million containers of wet pet food the Canadian company has recalled.

    The FDA said those tests found melamine -- a chemical used in floor tiles, kitchenware, and fire retardant fabrics -- in Menu's tainted pet food.

    Wheat gluten, a source of vegetable protein, is also used in some human foods, but the FDA emphasized it had found no indication that the contaminated ingredient had been used in food for people. The FDA said it would alert the public quickly if the melamine was found in any foods other than the recalled pet food.

    The FDA also found the chemical in the ingredient the FDA suspects is the source of the contamination -- the wheat gluten the company imports from China.

    And that melamine-contaminated wheat gluten, the FDA announced, might have been used to make dry dog food. If that's the case, the scope of this massive recall could be even wider.

    Already, Hill's Pet Nutrition recalled its Prescription Diet m/d Feline dry cat food. The food included wheat gluten from the same supplier that Menu Foods used. The recall doesn't involve any other Prescription Diet or Science Diet products, the company said.

    "I just knew this was going to happen," one worried pet owner wrote on the PetConnection.com blog in response to today's news. "This is awful, just awful. Our poor beloved pets. They just don't stand a chance ... "

    The FDA isn't sure how melamine -- which is used as fertilizer in Asia -- would have poisoned pets, said Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.

    He said the contaminated wheat gluten was shipped to an unnamed company that manufactures dry pet food.

    Only wet "cuts and gravy" style-pets food are involved in the Menu Foods recall.

    The FDA is now investigating whether the melamine-tainted wheat gluten -- also imported from China --- was used to make any dry pet foods.

    When asked if pet owners could be feeding unsafe food to their animals, Sundlof said: "It is possible, but I think we've been following every lead that we can. My sense is that we have gotten most of it under control."

    Last week, New York officials announced they discovered the toxin aminopterin -- used as rat poison in other countries and as a cancer drug in the United States -- in Menu's contaminated products.

    But the FDA said its tests -- and those by the outside lab -- did not reveal the rat poisoning in the recalled pet food. Or in the wheat gluten.

    Cornell University officials, however, now confirm they found melamine in the urine and kidney of a sick cat. New York officials say they've detected that chemical, too.

    Menu Foods has confirmed its recalled containers of pet food -- distributed throughout North America under 95 brands -- were made with wheat gluten from a new supplier.

    But the company said it stopped using that supplier after cats and dogs that ate the its food showed signs of kidney failure or died.

    Findings Support ASPCA

    Today's announcement by the FDA supports findings released earlier this week by The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

    The animal rights group said data its veterinary toxicologists have analyzed indicated other contaminants might be involved in the tainted pet foods.

    "Clinical signs reported in cats affected by the contaminated foods are not fully consistent with the ingestion of rat poison containing aminopterin that, according to Menu Foods, is at the 'root' of the contamination issue," the ASPCA said on March 27, 2007.

    Dr. Steven Hansen, veterinary toxicologist and senior vice president with the ASPCA, added: "We've seen reports coming in from all around the country that animals that were eating the contaminated foods are definitely suffering from renal failure. But the data that we've been collecting do not conclusively prove this connection, which is why we strongly recommend that those involved in the investigation continue to search for additional contaminants."

    Dr. Hansen said animals poisoned with aminopterin should have additional symptoms.

    "To be consistent with the effects of aminopterin, we should also be seeing a significant number of affected pets showing the accompanying signs of severe intestinal damage, as well as bone marrow suppression, including 'leukopenia,' which is a serious reduction in white blood cells," he said. "This is the missing connection ... there are so many inconsistencies in the purported link between aminopterin and the animals affected that we urge veterinary toxicologists and veterinary pathologists at diagnostic laboratories to continue looking for additional contaminants.

    "Only continued rigorous testing will uncover the real reason or reasons for this crisis among our pet population."

    The FDA confirmed 16 cats and dogs have died after eating Menu's contaminated food, but it expects that number to dramatically increase. The governmental agency has received more than 8,000 complaints from pet owners and veterinarians, and is testing hundreds of customer-submitted samples.

    The contamination appears to be more deadly to cats than dogs, the FDA's Sundlof said.

    Earlier this week, the Veterinarians Information Network, a Web site of 30,000 veterinarians and veterinary students, announced its members have reported 104 deaths linked to Menu Foods' contaminated pet food.

    The majority of those deaths -- 88 -- involved cats.

    The Web site also received 11 reports of dogs dying after eating Menu Foods' tainted products. The remaining five deaths did not list a species.

    In addition, VIN said its members have seen 471 cases of kidney failure since Menu Foods announced its massive recall on March 16, 2007.

    The Web site PetConnection.com says it has -- as of March 30, 2007 -- received 2,400 unconfirmed reports of dog and cat deaths linked to Menu Foods.

    As the investigation continues, pet owners are advised to watch their dogs and cats for symptoms of kidney failure, including loss of appetite, lethargy, vomiting, excessive drinking and either excessive or no urination.

    Veterinarians, however, warn that animals do not show symptoms until about 70 percent of the kidney function is lost.

    A complete list of the recalled pet foods is available at Menu Food's Web site: www.menufoods.com/recall or contact the company at (866) 463-6738 or (866) 895-2708.

    FDA Confirms It Found Plastic in Tainted Pet Food...
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    FDA Finds Plastic in Tainted Pet Food

    PETA Demands a Wider Recall; Wants IAMS Investigated

    U.S. Food and Drug Administration testing found a chemical commonly used in plastics, but no rat poison, in the recalled pet food that has killed and sickened cats and dogs nationwide, the agency said today.

    As the FDA was announcing its findings, the animal-rights organization PETA called on the agency to immediately expand the pet food recall to include all dry varieties subject to complaints until they are chemically tested for safety.

    PETA will also wants the FDA to investigate Iams in order to find out if the company knew about the contaminated food before calling for a recall.

    "Nearly a month elapsed between the first reports of illness and death from contaminated products and the recall -- time during which countless cats and dogs may have been sickened and died," says PETA Vice President Bruce Friedrich. "We?re calling on Iams and other companies not to gamble with animals' lives and to recall all dry food products that are the subject of complaints immediately."

    Testing by the FDA and at least one lab independent of the agency found melamine, a chemical used in plastics and household textiles, in samples of the recalled pet food and in one of its ingredients -- wheat gluten, said Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.

    Cornell University scientists say they have also found the chemical, sometimes used as a fertilizer, in the urine of sick cats, as well as in the kidney of one cat that died after eating the company's wet food.

    The FDA now says it has received 8,000 complaints regarding the recalled food and is testing hundreds of customer-submitted samples. Menu Foods recalled 60 million containers of cat and dog food earlier this month after animals died of kidney failure after eating the Canadian company's products.

    PETA charged that Iams has "a history of causing animal suffering."

    "During a 2002 to 2003 undercover investigation of an animal-testing laboratory contracted by Iams, a PETA investigator documented that terrified animals were confined to cramped, unsanitary cages in dilapidated rooms; that dogs had chunks of muscle cut from their thighs; and other acts of cruelty," PETA said.

    Rat Poison

    There had been earlier expressions of doubt that aminopterin was the sole cause of the wave of pet poisonings.

    The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) isn't so sure. Based on data its veterinary toxicologists have analyzed, the animal rights group suspects other contaminants might be involved.

    "Clinical signs reported in cats affected by the contaminated foods are not fully consistent with the ingestion of rat poison containing aminopterin that, according to Menu Foods, is at the 'root' of the contamination issue," the ASPCA stated in a release issued March 27, 2007.

    "We've seen reports coming in from all around the country that animals that were eating the contaminated foods are definitely suffering from renal failure," said Dr. Steven Hansen, veterinary toxicologist and senior vice president with the ASPCA. "But the data that we've been collecting do not conclusively prove this connection, which is why we strongly recommend that those involved in the investigation continue to search for additional contaminants."

    Dr. Hansen says animals poisoned with aminopterin -- which is used to treat humans with cancer -- should have additional symptoms.

    "To be consistent with the effects of aminopterin, we should also be seeing a significant number of affected pets showing the accompanying signs of severe intestinal damage, as well as bone marrow suppression, including 'leukopenia,' which is a serious reduction in white blood cells," he says. "This is the missing connection that we want to alert veterinarians around the country to.

    He adds: "There are so many inconsistencies in the purported link between aminopterin and the animals affected, that we urge veterinary toxicologists and veterinary pathologists at diagnostic laboratories to continue looking for additional contaminants. Only continued rigorous testing will uncover the real reason or reasons for this crisis among our pet population."

    FDA Finds Plastic in Tainted Pet Food...
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      Parkinson's Drugs Withdrawn Because of Heart Valve Damage

      Permax and Generic Equivalents Being Withdrawn; Other Drugs Available

      Manufacturers of pergolide drug products, which are used to treat Parkinson's disease, will voluntarily remove the drugs from the market because of the risk of serious damage to patients' heart valves.

      The products being withdrawn are Permax, the trade name for pergolide marketed by Valeant Pharmaceuticals, and two generic versions of pergolide manufactured by Par and Teva.

      Pergolide is in a class of medications called dopamine agonists and is used with levodopa and carbidopa to manage the symptoms (tremors and slowness of movement) of Parkinson's disease.

      In 2006, an estimated 12,000 patients received prescriptions for pergolide from retail pharmacies in the United States. Patients taking pergolide should contact their doctors to discuss alternate treatments. Patients should not stop taking the medication, as stopping pergolide abruptly can be dangerous.

      There are alternative therapies available for Parkinson's disease, including three other dopamine agonists that have not been associated with valvular heart disease. The removal of pergolide products is not expected to adversely affect patient care because of the alternative therapies available, the FDA said.

      "Based on important new drug safety information, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been working with the manufacturers of pergolide products to voluntarily remove these drugs from the market," said Douglas Throckmorton, M.D., deputy director of FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. "The FDA's increased evaluation of post-market safety is benefiting the public because, in this case, as new data about the product became available, we were able to remove a less safe drug from the market."

      Two recent New England Journal of Medicine studies confirm previous findings associating pergolide with increased chance of regurgitation (backflow of blood) of the mitral, tricuspid, and aortic valves of the heart.

      Valve regurgitation is a condition in which valves don't close tightly, allowing blood to flow backward across the valve. Symptoms include shortness of breath, fatigue and heart palpitations.

      In light of this additional post-market safety information, the companies that manufacture and sell pergolide will stop shipping pergolide for distribution and, in cooperation with FDA, will withdraw the products from the market.

      Permax was approved in 1988 for Eli Lilly and Company as an adjunctive therapy with levodopa in Parkinson's disease. Valvular heart disease was first described in association with pergolide in 2002. In 2003, FDA asked Lilly to add valvulopathy (abnormality of cardiac valves) to the warnings section of Permax labeling, at which time a Dear Healthcare Practitioner letter was sent by Lilly. In 2006, the warning was upgraded to a black box warning, the FDA's strongest form of warning, because of new data concerning risks of heart valve damage.

      FDA is issuing a Public Health Advisory (PHA) detailing the removal of pergolide products from the market. The PHA, which is available online includes information and recommended actions for physicians, pharmacists and patients.

      The effect of the voluntary withdrawal on supplies of pergolide currently in pharmacies will not be immediate. This delay will allow time for health care providers and patients to discuss appropriate treatment options and time to change treatments.

      Parkinson's Drugs Withdrawn Because of Heart Valve Damage...
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      Fed Chair Rethinks Easy Access To Credit

      Easy credit helped lead to implosion in housing market

      Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke recently commented that widespread access to credit may have contributed to the chain of events leading to the explosion in home prices and the subsequent implosion of lenders that cater to the "subprime" market. 

      Bernanke's comments came as part of a speech touting the benefits of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which insures that banks and lenders in a community provide services to low-income residents. The CRA was generally credited for helping families with low and moderate income levels achieve homeownership in greater numbers than before, but that the "results were not uniform," Bernanke said.

      Increased participation of nonbank lenders in the mortgage market and the expansion of available credit -- along with a corresponding relaxation of standards for lending -- also increased home ownership for many who might not have been able to purchase a first home otherwise. But, Bernanke cautioned, "recent problems in mortgage markets illustrate that an underlying assumption of the CRA -- that more lending equals better outcomes for local communities may not always hold."

      "Whether, and if so, how to try to differentiate "good" from "bad" lending in the CRA context is an issue that is likely to challenge us for some time," Bernanke said. "One possible strategy is to place more weight in CRA examinations on factors such as whether an institution provides services complementary to lending--for example, counseling and financial education."

      The collapse of the subprime market -- lenders who target loans at individuals with low incomes, or with bad or minimal credit histories -- has accelerated as home sales stall, prices sag, and families find themselves trapped in homes they can't afford and can't easily sell or refinance. Many homebuyers took advantage of "creative" mortgage products, such as interest-only loans, with ballooning payments that the borrower can't keep up with.

      Many subprime lenders took advantage of the hot market by loosening underwriting standards and overlooking problems in a borrower's financial history. Others deliberately targeted low-income markets -- mostly black and Hispanic -- and used predatory lending tactics, as well as capitalizing on the lack of financial education of many borrowers.

      As homeowners defaulted on their loans in increasing numbers, and many simply let their homes be foreclosed, subprime lenders found themselves unable to finance new loans and fend off hungry backers. New Century Financial is potentially seeking bankruptcy protection after agreeing to cease lending practices in several states, and has cut ties with mortgage backers such as Freddie Mac.

      States and Congress alike have been calling for tighter regulation of mortgage lenders, especially in the subprime market, and more aggressive prosecution of companies that engage in predatory lending tactics. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) recently offered up new legislation that would empower a "national regulatory system" to oversee all lenders and prevent proliferation of no-document loans.

      Bernanke's Burden

      Meanwhile, Fed chair Bernanke continues to navigate through an economic bust engineered in no small part by his predecessor, Alan Greenspan. The former Fed chair's decision to cut interest rates to record lows spurred new trends in lending and borrowing, as homeowners refinanced multiple times, pulled equity out of their homes, and "speculated" in the market by buying multiple properties to "flip" for quick profits.

      It was not until Greenspan was safely retired that he began to warn of the ill effects of easily available credit in the housing boom.

      After two years of raising the prime lending interest rate during his tenure, Bernanke's Fed has held lending rates steady at 5.25 percent while campaigning for Congress to address fixing entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

      Bernanke has frequently stated that failures in the subprime market would be "contained" and would not spread to the larger mortgage sector, and that the economy would grow at a sustainable pace, not requiring further hikes in interest rates. His "easy credit" comments are the strongest indicator yet that the Federal Reserve may change its course, possibly pushing for tighter lending standards to prevent future meltdowns.

      Fed Chair Rethinks Easy Access To Credit...
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      TJX Data Breach Called "Biggest Ever"

      46 Million Customers' Data Exposed to Identity Thieves

      Nearly 46 million TJX customers had their credit and debit card data exposed in an ongoing breach that lasted over 18 months, the company said today. The company the theft included personal data it had stored on 455,000 individuals, including drivers' license numbers and military identification numbers.

      The new revelations led Gartner research analyst Avivah Litan to say that the TJX breach had "set a record" for the amount of personal information exposed, and was already being calling the "biggest ever."

      The previous recordholder was CardSystems, the payment processor that had stored data on 40 million Visa and MasterCard users, and was hit by an outside hack in 2005. CardSystems, later sold to biometric payments processor PayByTouch, settled Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that it had failed to adequately protect the data.

      TJX, the parent company of the TJ Maxx, Marshalls, Winners, and HomeSense shopping chains, reported that computer hackers had broken into its systems on Dec. 18, 2006, and had accessed customer card information from their payment processing systems. The company first hired specialists from IBM and General Dynamics to investigate the incident, then contacted local and federal law enforcement. The public was finally made aware of the breach on Jan. 13, 2007.

      It was later determined that the first breach had occured in July 2005, and that TJX's networks had suffered similar, albeit smaller, breaches in 2003 and 2004.

      The hackers had gained access to the TJX network and were siphoning data even before it was encrypted for storage, and were apparently taking extra efforts to ensure their actions would not be detected by regular security sweeps. The hackers apparently had traps set up to pick up data during the card issuer's approval process, as well as access to the decryption key TJX used to read its data.

      TJX was hit with investigations from multiple states, including Massachusetts and Rhode Island, for failing to secure its customer data and more aggressively notify affected customers. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley -- herself a victim of identity theft in an unrelated case -- said that she would crack down more heavily on cases of identity theft and fraud during her tenure.

      The FTC is thought to be investigating TJX in the wake of the breach and the company faces at least one class-action lawsuit, and a number of individual lawsuits.

      Since the breach was disclosed, banks have reported multiple instances of fraud utilizing the card numbers acquired during the hack. Most recently, Florida authorities arrested several individuals who had encoded "clone" credit cards with numbers acquired in the breach, then used the fake cards to buy multiple gift cards from Wal-Mart, which they then used to purchase millions in expensive merchandise.

      The suspects in the Florida fraud case may have gained the TJX credit card numbers through transactions in the "underground economy," which includes secret Internet chat rooms where hackers sell and buy stolen personal information. A full set of personal data -- name, address, and Social Security number -- can sell for as little as $14, and credit and debit card numbers usually go for as little as $1, according to a study released by Symantec.

      TJX Data Breach Called...
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      Asthma Patients Pay the Price for Ozone Protection

      Polluters Can Pollute Away but Asthma Victims Must Pay Up

      No one's putting any restrictions on Hummers, backyard grills, coal-fired power plants or other pollutants but those who are already victims of air pollution -- asthma victims -- will be paying up to three times as much for their live-saving inhalers, all in the name of protecting the ozone layer.

      A study in the March 29 New England Journal of Medicine finds the new inhalers effective, but expensive.

      Conducted by two university professors and a director for the Food and Drug Administration, the review examines the consequences of switching to hydrofluoroalkane, which is replacing chlorofluorocarbon, or CFC, as a key ingredient in albuterol inhalers designed to relieve asthma. The FDA has ruled that U.S. sales of CFC albuterol inhalers be prohibited after 2008.

      About 52 million prescriptions are filled for albuterol each year in the United States, with most containing a generic version of CFC. But because of rising global concerns about CFC's ozone-depleting effects, "medically essential" inhalers are finally joining a list of banned products that started in 1978.

      The researchers say their analyses show that inhalers with CFC and the new brands that contain hydrofluoroalkane, or HFA, are equally effective at treating asthma.

      "Hopefully, by communicating with health-care professionals, we'll be able to reassure patients," said Leslie Hendeles, the University of Florida professor of pharmacy and pediatrics who spearheaded the review.

      Albuterol, one of the medicines that relieve asthma attacks, is the seventh most commonly prescribed drug in the United States. Because it's so widely used, the report predicts Americans will spend an additional $1.2 billion a year on three patented inhaler brands containing the new propellant (Ventolin, ProAir and Proventil) until generic versions reach pharmacies, probably after 2012.

      Patients who pay for their own medications will probably be hit hardest by new costs -- paying on average $26 more per prescription, or $312 more per year -- but people with prescription benefit plans will likely face higher co-pays as well, according to the review.

      Additionally, while the new inhalers are just as effective as their traditional CFC counterparts, a few differences have been reported. One brand, for example, comes sealed in a protective pouch. After that pouch is opened, the drug carries a shelf life of just two months, while most inhalers can typically be stored for 15 to 24 months, Hendeles said.

      Consumers will also notice that only the Ventolin brand of HFA inhaler comes with a counter to track how much medicine is left. For that reason, Hendeles suggests keeping a backup inhaler handy if physicians prescribe a device without a counter.

      "There isn't any reliable way of estimating when they're going to run out," said Hendeles, who also serves as a consultant to the FDA.

      The review also reports that some HFA inhalers tend to clog more easily. To prevent clogging in HFA inhalers, Hendeles advised patients to remove the devices' metal canister once a week and clean the plastic actuators with warm water.

      Not all of the new HFA inhaler products are ideal for everyone and health-care providers and their patients should be aware of important differences.

      Two brands of HFA inhalers contain ethanol. It may not be an appropriate therapy choice depending on the patient's religious beliefs, and can temporarily cause a false reading on breath alcohol tests performed by law enforcement agencies, Hendeles said.

      Hendeles noted that CFC inhalers release negligible amounts of the propellant, and do not pose a threat to ozone depletion. However, the United States joined more than 185 other countries in signing the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty requiring complete withdrawal of all CFC products. The inhaler, deemed medically necessary, was exempt until new market replacements using HFA became available.

      Hendeles said he hopes the review will dispel myths about HFA for doctors and patients. Still, even though HFA inhalers are safe for the environment and effective at treating asthma, some people may feel uncomfortable when making the switch. HFA inhalers spew slower and warmer plumes of medicine than their CFC counterparts, so asthma patients may fear their new inhalers aren't strong enough.

      "There undoubtedly will be some people who are absolutely certain it doesn't work as well," Hendeles said, adding that patient education is the key to proper care.

      Dr. Rachel L. Miller, an assistant professor of clinical medicine and public health at Columbia University, said she would urge asthma patients to consult their pharmacist or health-care provider if they're nervous about using the new inhalers.

      "It's really the same drug," said Miller, who has worked with both CFC and HFA inhalers. "I have found both of them, in my personal experience, seem to work fine."

      Asthma Patients Pay the Price for Ozone Protection...
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      Reports of Dog, Cat Deaths Continue to Rise

      Some Scientists Question Whether Rat Poison is the Cause

      Reports of illnesses and deaths linked to Menu Foods' tainted dog and cat food continue to rise nationwide -- far more than the 16 confirmed cases reported by the Federal Drug Administration -- while some scientists question the widely reported findings that rat poisoning may be to blame for the outbreak.

      The Veterinarians Information Network, a Web site of 30,000 veterinarians and veterinary students, says its members have reported 471 cases of kidney failure in the 12 days since Menu Foods of Canada recalled 60 million containers of "cuts and gravy" style cat and dog foods tainted with rat poisoning.

      More than 95 brands -- sold throughout North America under store and private labels -- are involved in the massive recall.

      "The 16 (cases) the FDA confirms is barely the tip of the iceberg," the network's co-founder, veterinarian Paul Pion, told The Los Angeles Times. "There will be much more than this."

      Pion says veterinarians have reported 104 deaths linked to Menu Foods' contaminated pet food. The majority of those deaths -- 88 -- involved cats. The Web site has also received 11 reports of dogs dying after eating Menu Foods' products. The remaining deaths did not list a species.

      Veterinarians also reported that 59 pets have survived illnesses linked to the recalled food and 129 animals are still undergoing treatment.

      The Web site PetConnection.com says that -- as of March 27, 2007 -- it had received nearly 2,000 reports of pets dying after eating Menu's contaminated food. Those reports came from pet owners and are not confirmed cases.

      Rat Poison

      Scientists have identified the contamination in Menu's dog and cat foods as a rat poison called aminopterin. The company is investigating how that toxin got into its food supply, but the FDA suspects the culprit might be the wheat gluten Menu imports from China.

      But is rat poisoning the real cause for these pets' illnesses and death?

      The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) isn't so sure. Based on data its veterinary toxicologists have analyzed, the animal rights group suspects other contaminants might be involved.

      "Clinical signs reported in cats affected by the contaminated foods are not fully consistent with the ingestion of rat poison containing aminopterin that, according to Menu Foods, is at the 'root' of the contamination issue," the ASPCA stated in a release issued March 27, 2007.

      "We've seen reports coming in from all around the country that animals that were eating the contaminated foods are definitely suffering from renal failure," said Dr. Steven Hansen, veterinary toxicologist and senior vice president with the ASPCA. "But the data that we've been collecting do not conclusively prove this connection, which is why we strongly recommend that those involved in the investigation continue to search for additional contaminants."

      Dr. Hansen says animals poisoned with aminopterin -- which is used to treat humans with cancer -- should have additional symptoms.

      "To be consistent with the effects of aminopterin, we should also be seeing a significant number of affected pets showing the accompanying signs of severe intestinal damage, as well as bone marrow suppression, including 'leukopenia,' which is a serious reduction in white blood cells," he says. "This is the missing connection that we want to alert veterinarians around the country to.

      He adds: "There are so many inconsistencies in the purported link between aminopterin and the animals affected, that we urge veterinary toxicologists and veterinary pathologists at diagnostic laboratories to continue looking for additional contaminants. Only continued rigorous testing will uncover the real reason or reasons for this crisis among our pet population."

      Pet Owners' Stories

      The widespread reports of illness and death among cats and dogs mirror the complaints ConsumerAffairs.com has received from pets owners across the country, who says their dogs or cats became sick or died after eating Menu Foods tainted products.

      "My cat, Murphy has been in the hospital for three days now," says Victoria Olsen of Federal Way, WA., "He experienced the same symptoms as the cats I have read about. He quit eating, drank water to excess, and was always in the litter box."

      This is a cat, she says, that nearly died two years ago.

      "He survived being caught for 28 days in a neighbor's animal trap. He suffered a crushed hind leg, lost more than half of his body weight, and still managed to drag himself home. It took awhile, but he came back and was back to normal.

      "Now, after eating contaminated Authority brand pet food, he has lost all of the weight he gained back and is in renal failure."

      A cat owner in Texas says her pet is also battling kidney problems. And she blames the sudden illness on Menu Foods.

      "My cat, Munchie, has become very ill with kidney failure after eating Special Kitty, one of the foods listed on the pet food recall," says Ann, of Springs, Texas. "She has always been a healthy cat, who we loving referred to as 'fat cat.' Now my 'fat cat' is a skinny cat who is in the animal hospital trying to get well ... the vet say she will need to be on a special diet, with medications, for the rest of her life."

      Deaths Reported

      We've also received complaints about pets dying after eating Menu Foods' products.

      "I had been feeding my cat the pouches of Special Kitty sold at Wal-Mart (and included in the recall)," says Vickie S. of Clifton Forge, VA. "My cat seemed to go downhill very rapidly. She stopped eating, drinking, and was very lethargic. By the time I was able to get her to the vet, she was in acute renal failure with complications in her pancreas and liver.

      "The vet did not give a good prognosis for her recovery, and I had to make the decision to have her mercifully euthanized."

      At the time, Menu Foods hadn't announced its recall.

      The news shocked and devastated Vickie.

      "I had been unknowingly poisoning my beloved pet the whole time," she says. "Due to this poisoning, vet bills of approximately $400.00 were incurred that would have otherwise been unnecessary and I would still have my loving companion."

      A dog owner in Illinois says his "best friend" became gravely ill and had to be put to sleep after eating some of the tainted food.

      "My dog was my child and has been with me for 13 plus years," says Dave O., of Lisle, Illinois. "The amount of pain I am going through for the loss of my best friend is indescribable."

      Dave says he hopes his dog didn't die in vain.

      "The void left is immeasurable, but we want to make sure that something good comes out of this ... be it more strict policies on food quality or money that can go to help other animals in need."

      Other Brands?

      Some pet owners also told us their dogs and cats became sick after eating other brands of pet food.

      Their pets, they say, had symptoms similar to those who at the contaminated foods. And they now wonder if the recall should extend beyond Menu Foods.

      "I use 22 ounce cans of Pedigree dog food and mix it in with my dog's dry food," says Jill C. of Minden, NV. "She was sick for approximately five to six days, lethargic, had diarrhea, and vomited a couple of times."

      After a few days on dry food, her dog's condition improved.

      "So I again mixed in some wet food and she threw it all up," Jill says. "I've stopped feeding her any canned Pedigree what-so-ever.

      "My concern is 'how does anyone at this point know if it's just Menu Foods that has a problem?'"

      Recall List

      A complete list of the recalled pet foods is available on Menu Food's Web site: www.menufoods.com/recall or contact the company at (866) 463-6738 or (866) 895-2708.

      Pet owners should immediately contact their veterinarians if they notice any signs of illness in their animals after eating the recalled foods, including loss of appetite, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, changes in water consumption, or changes in urination.

      Reports of Dog, Cat Deaths Continue to Rise...
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      FTC Stops 'Reduce Debt Now' Scheme

      At the request of the Federal Trade Commission, a judge has temporarily halted an operation that falsely claimed it could reduce consumers' credit card interest rates or the total amount of their credit card debt, leading many people into even more debt.

      The FTC's complaint claims that since 2004 the defendants have sold debt reduction services through Web sites and television and radio advertisements with claims such as "Reduce Debt Now," "Eliminate Harassing Calls," and "It's Free."

      When consumers call a toll-free number, they are encouraged to enroll in a "debt consolidation program" if their unsecured consumer debt is up to one month overdue, or to enroll in a "debt settlement program" if overdue more than a month.

      According to the complaint, the defendants promise to consolidate the consumer's debts and negotiate with creditors for lower interest rates, such as "between zero and 9 percent," or lump-sum settlements, such as "fifty cents on the dollar" or "50 to 60 percent" of the consumer's total unsecured debt.

      They allegedly fail to obtain the promised debt reductions in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act, and many of their clients experienced more debt due to accumulated interest, late fees, and finance charges.

      The complaint also states that, during initial telephone sales, the defendants assert that consumers will not have to pay up-front fees before the defendants begin obtaining the promised debt relief. They also represent that participation in their program will stop creditors from calling or suing them to collect debt.

      Instead, the Commission maintains, they generally require consumers to pay, in monthly payments, eight percent of the consumer's total debt before the defendants contact creditors. The complaint also alleges that the defendants often do not contact creditors or debt collectors at all, and that consumers who enroll in the program continue to receive collection calls.

      The court issued a temporary restraining order against Debt Set Inc. ("Debt Set Colorado"), Debt-Set ("Debt -Set Nevada"), Resolve Credit Counseling Inc., William Riggs, Michelle Tucker a/k/a Michelle Mangan, Lee Tucker a/k/a Leo Mangan, and Isaac Khan a/k/a Issac M. Khan or Ishaq Mohammad Khan. The order freezes the individual defendants' assets and appoints a temporary receiver over the corporate defendants.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      FTC Stops 'Reduce Debt Now' Scheme...
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      Baby Trend Recalls Infant Back Pack Carriers

      Baby Trend is recalling infant back pack carriers. The stitching on the strap of the carrier can loosen or detach, causing the carrier to shift, posing a fall hazard to young children.

      Baby Trend has received one report of a child whose forehead was bruised after falling out of the carrier. Baby Trend also received 17 reports of shoulder straps loosening from the body of the carrier.

      The product is a green/silver infant back pack carrier made of heavy duty nylon with a lightweight steel frame. Only carriers with style number 2512 and 2592LX are included in the recall. Style numbers are printed on the metal frame of the product. The carrier has a 5-point safety harness, padded shoulder and hip straps, padded leg openings and heat support. The carrier also has a top canopy and large diaper bag which attaches to the frame. "Baby Trend" is printed on the back of the seat of the carrier. The backpack folds into its own diaper bag for storage and travel.

      The carriers were sold at discount department and juvenile products stores nationwide from March 2002 through November 2006 for about $50.

      Consumers should contact Baby Trend for return instructions and a free replacement carrier.

      Consumer Contact: For additional information, contact Baby Trend at (800) 328-7363 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday or visit the firm's Web site at www.babytrend.com.

      The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

      Baby Trend Recalls Infant Back Pack Carriers...
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      Public Citizen Objects to Carfax Settlement

      Settlement does nothing for consumers or safety, group argues

      Public Citizen today filed objections to a proposed nationwide settlement of a class-action lawsuit against Carfax, a company that sells history reports for used cars.

      The lawsuit, filed in Ohio, alleges that consumers are being deceived by Carfax's claim that its vehicle history reports are based on searches of its nationwide database, when in fact the database does not include police accident data from 22 states and the District of Columbia.

      The objections to the settlement were filed on behalf of 17 individual class members and the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety.

      Although the complaint asked the court to award damages to Carfax customers and to require Carfax to disclose the specific limitations of its database, the proposed settlement would do neither.

      Instead, it would primarily benefit Carfax, which would obtain a release from all similar claims by all former customers nationwide, and the plaintiff's lawyers, who would receive $556,000 in fees.

      "Carfax should be held accountable for misleading its customers -- it should not benefit from this settlement that adds insult to injury," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook.

      The settlement defines the class of consumers bound by its terms to include anyone who purchased a Carfax vehicle history report prior to Oct. 27, 2006.

      However, individual notice of the proposed settlement was sent only by e-mail and only to customers who bought Carfax reports during the one year preceding the settlement. As a result, the majority of class members got no notice of the settlement.

      "Not only will the notice fail to reach most of the class, but even those consumers who hear about the settlement will receive almost no benefit for releasing their claims," said Deepak Gupta, an attorney at Public Citizen who runs the organization's Consumer Justice Project. "If the settlement is approved, class members who know about the settlement will receive coupons that are worthless to most of them."

      The settlement allows class members to choose between a coupon for another Carfax report or a coupon for $20 off a car inspection by the company SGS SA. The report coupons expire in two or three years, while the inspection coupons expire in six months, rendering them useless to any class member who is not buying a used car during those time periods.

      "The settlement would do nothing to force Carfax to inform consumers of the deficiencies of its reports," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety

      Instead, the settlement would require Carfax to state on its Web site that it "may" not have the complete history for every vehicle, when, according to the complaint in the case, the company knows for certain that it does not have a complete history for a large number, perhaps even most, of its vehicles.

      Although the complaint specifies 23 jurisdictions from which Carfax does not get police accident data, the settlement would not require Carfax to identify which ones are missing from its database.

      "When I bought a subscription to Carfax reports in 2005, I had no way of knowing that the reports did not have accident information from neighboring places like Delaware, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and Virginia," said Gwynneth Anderson, a Maryland resident and an objector to the settlement who bought a 2005 Nissan Sentra after researching the car through Carfax.

      "The proposal for coupons and an inspection voucher are worthless to me now. But for future buyers, Carfax should be required to let them know exactly what's missing from its reports."

      A hearing on the motion for approval of the settlement is scheduled for May 11 in Warren, Ohio.

      Public Citizen lawyers Gupta, Allison Zieve and Brian Wolfman filed the objections, with Ronald Frederick as local counsel in Ohio.

      Public Citizen Objects to Carfax Settlement...
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      Senators Object to DirecTV Deal that Shuts Out Baseball Fans

      "Works a real inconvenience with a lot of people," Sen. Kerry notes

      Senators warned Major League Baseball today that if they sign an exclusive programming package deal with DirecTV, Congress may step in and defend the hundreds of thousands of consumers who are just four days away from losing their ability to watch out of market baseball games.

      Today's hearing comes three weeks after Major League Baseball (MLB) and DirecTV reached an agreement to carry MLB's popular Extra Innings package of out-of-market games. Although not exclusive, the deal will become so if DirecTV's rivals do not match DirecTV's terms before Opening Day, April 1.

      "It works a real inconvenience with a lot of people," said Sen. John Kerry, (D-Mass.), who convened the hearing at the Senate Commerce Committee. "A lot of baseball fans are very disappointed and some are very angry."

      The catch for DirecTV's rivals is that it will become very costly for them to match those terms. Although the exact terms of the deal have not been released, even to DirecTV's rivals, MLB spokespeople have said that these are the terms:

      • Seven years at $100 million per year
      • Carriage of MLB's 24-hour Baseball Channel, scheduled for launch in 2009, on at least 80 percent of all subscriber's basic package
      • 20 percent minority ownership of The Baseball Channel

      But at the Senate hearing today, it seemed Major League Baseball (MLB) is actively trying to prevent millions of fans from having access to their package of out of market games and The Baseball Channel.

      DirecTV's rivals said they offered to match the terms, but MLB has rebuffed both offers.

      At the hearing, Dish Network president Carl Vogel, revealed that Dish had offered to match the terms including an equal 20 percent ownership of The Baseball Channel. But MLB told them the 20 percent offer was only available to DirecTV.

      Two weeks ago, iN DEMAND, a consortium of digital cable operators, offered to match the deal by promising to provide The Baseball Channel to as many customers as DirecTV and did not offer to become an owner of the channel. But MLB turned down that deal because iN DEMAND would only provide The Baseball Channel to the same number of customers as DirecTV, not the 80 percent.

      Kerry, chairman of the committee, convinced all the parties to meet in the next 24 to 48 hours to attempt to come to terms that will be best for consumers, not the bottom line.

      But MLB president Robert Dupuy did not seem hopeful a deal could be reached before the fast-approaching deadline.

      If an agreement is not reached and Extra Innings becomes exclusive to DirecTV, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) warned, "We are not entirely powerless."

      A Contractual Catfight

      MLB has offered Extra Innings on a non-exclusive basis since its inception in 2001.

      MLB's Extra Innings is valuable to baseball's most devoted fans because it allows them to watch almost every game regardless of their location. For example, a Los Angeles Dodgers fan can watch almost all Dodgers games in Atlanta. The service is particularly popular with fantasy baseball players.

      But over the winter, MLB began looking for an exclusive deal for the package after DirecTV began negotiating one in the fall, Dupuy told ConsumerAffairs.com.

      MLB tried to generate a bidding war and went to DirecTV's rivals for counter offers. iN DEMAND would not negotiate an exclusive deal, potentially matching DirecTV's, but did offer to match DirecTV's financial terms of $100 million per year over seven years. But MLB was insistent in finding an exclusive partner, so it went forward with DirecTV, a company that has held the exclusive rights to NFL games among other sports partners.

      When word got out that MLB was close to signing an exclusive deal with DirecTV in February, fans and newspaper opinion pages fumed.

      The deal would cut out approximately 250,000 fans who had previously subscribed either through Dish Network or iN DEMAND. The deal would also cut out approximately 50 million potential consumers who subscribe to Dish and digital cable.

      MLB and DirecTV responded by saying that cable customers have the option of switching to DirecTV or watching the games online.

      But many fans, particularly those in urban neighborhoods cannot watch satellite TV because they cannot get a good view of the southern sky, where the satellite orbits, or, in even more cases, are not allowed to put a dish on their rental. Many homeowners simply do not want to devalue their investment -- or risk damaging their roof -- by placing a grey dish atop their homes.

      As far as watching the games online, a very fast broadband connection is required and although it is an alternative, it is a rather pixilated one as the quality is less than half that of digital cable. It also costs $90-$120 per season compared to Extra Innings which costs $179.

      As the angry letters piled into government offices, a handful of Congressmen, led by Sen. Kerry, began looking into the matter. Kerry asked the Federal Communications Commission to investigate the burgeoning deal in early March. The Commission has not released the results of the investigation, but Kerry said last week that the deal is "probably not" illegal.

      MLB commissioner Bud Selig further infuriated fans when in early March he told reporters at a press conference that "I'm really wondering [about the fuss]. ... In a year or two, when people understand the significance of this deal ... everybody will understand it."

      Senators Object to DirecTV Deal that Shuts Out Baseball Fans...
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      Businesses Back Off RFID

      Consumer Backlash Discourages Spy Chip Promoters

      By Martin H. Bosworth

      March 27, 2007
      To hear retailers and suppliers tell it, radio frequency identifier ("RFID") tags -- also known as "spy chips" -- are the way of the future, a means to effectively control inventory and track merchandise from end-to-end.

      Despite criticism about the lack of privacy protection and potential for misuse in the technology, many retail chains and finance giants are going full-bore with plans to implement RFID technology in all manner of products.

      However, some businesses such as Wal-Mart, DHL, and American Express have recently announced plans to move more slowly, leaving the impression that wide-scale adoption of RFID may not be as imminent as originally thought. In the case of American Express, the plans were apparently changed because of the potentially harmful side effects to consumers' privacy.

      Representatives of Wal-Mart recently commented in an InformationWeek article that the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retail giant was focusing more of its RFID efforts on "in-store application," such as tagging items, rather than supply-chain efforts. The difficulties centered around supply partners' slowness to adopt the technology and the time taken to catalog products marked with both RFID chips and traditional bar codes.


      The next day, DHL announced that it too was rethinking its initial plans to tag "every product it ships" with RFID by 2015. Bob Berg, DHL's senior program manager for RFID, said that the plan would cost over $1 billion and could not "be done on a lark." The company still plans to focus on implementing RFID technology in specific areas, such as transporting high-security or high-value items.

      American Express, for its part, announced plans to revamp its "consumer tracker" plan, wherein RFID tags in items like its AMEX Blue card would be used for tracking consumers as they moved about in a store, monitored by RFID readers in the shelves.

      The card issuer's plan had been exposed by members of the CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion And Numbering) organization, led by anti-spychip advocates Dr. Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre.

      CASPIAN obtained a copy of a patent filed by American Express for a "Method and System for Facilitating a Shopping Experience," wherein the readers would not only track consumer behavior and purchases in a store, but would transmit targeted advertisements based on their choices. CASPIAN compared the patent plan to technology demonstrated in the sci-fi thriller "Minority Report," in which Tom Cruise is zapped with individual holographic advertisements as he runs by store windows.

      After meeting with CASPIAN, American Express agreed to review its entire patent portfolio, to ensure that any chipped technology was used only with consumer consent, and to offer "chipless" versions of its cards for consumers who want them.

      McIntyre sees the moves by Wal-Mart and DHL as reactions to what she calls the "consumer backlash" against RFID tracking and chipping.

      "Wal-Mart in particular, the driving force behind commercial RFID adoption, can ill afford to alienate its customer base and further erode its bottom line," McIntyre said to ConsumerAffairs.com. "Its suppliers aren't excited about angering consumers either, and have been quite upset about Wal-Mart's costly RFID directives."

      Even one of the most ardent boosters of RFID technology may be changing his tune.

      Tommy Thompson, former secretary of Health and Human Services and now a board member of RFID manufacturer VeriChip, quietly announced his resignation from the board on March 8th. VeriChip's disclosure claimed Thompson wanted to devote all of his attention to his recently-announced -- though little noticed -- candidacy for President.

      Thompson had been an advocate of implanting RFID chips into all military personnel in order to better access their medical histories, and had repeatedly promised to get a chip for himself, but was not known to have done so before he stepped down from the VeriChip board.

      Ironically, although the U.S. military and the Department of Homeland Security have expressed interest in RFID as well, sales have not been brisk. A report by RFID label supplier IDTechEx found that a "severely uneconomic price" hindered sales of RFID chips, readers, and tags to "retail and military mandates."

      Businesses Back Off RFID...
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      Ford Engines "Dropping Like Flies" with Spark Plug Blow-Outs

      Confessions of a Ford Technician

      A Ford Motor Co. warranty inspector says the Ford Triton V-8 engines are "dropping like flies" because of blown spark plugs and a Ford dealer technician wants his customers to know it's not his fault.

      "I am a Ford dealer technician. I would like to address the Ford spark plug blowout issue," the technician wrote as he was working on a Ford vehicle that had blown a spark plug out of its aluminum head.

      "I would like the customers to know that it is Ford's defective engine design and not the fault of the technicians or dealerships," said the technician, who asked that his name and hometown not be used for fear that he would be fired if his identity was made public.

      He had this warning for Ford truck owners: "The warranty inspector from Ford told me the 5.4-liter engines are dropping like flies referring to spark plug blowouts."

      Despite spark plug problems in the Ford Triton engines, our Ford technician said his "hands are tied by Ford and Ford decides what it will and won't pay for even when people have warranties."

      The Ford technician told ConsumerAffairs.com that the Triton engines are very difficult and time-consuming to repair. He accused Ford of squeezing mechanics in the repair process with "insufficient flat rate times," and said, "the techs end up working free hours."

      "It is not on our shoulders to repair these problems at our expense," he wrote, "even to keep a customer. I can tell you that we are seeing spark plug blowouts more and more often. At times 3 or 4 vehicles a week."

      The Ford policy, he complained, unfairly paints the technician as the person refusing to stand behind the Ford product.

      "The customers need to understand that these poorly designed engines are a huge burden on the people that fix them and I am tired of subsidizing Ford like some kind of welfare," the technician wrote. "The people that are fixing these engines are not at fault but we get beat up by the customers."

      The Ford mechanic said no one at the automaker seems to be certain why the Triton engine, which is in widespread use throughout the country, spits spark plugs from its engine head.

      "Everybody seems to have a different opinion on why the plugs loosen up and beat up the threads until the plugs get ejected but I don't know of a way to prevent it either."

      His advice? Find another truck or SUV.

      "I personally have a 2000 Expedition with a 5.4 and even though the cost in actual dollars would be significantly less because I would fix it myself if it blows out a plug I am planning on selling it soon to avoid the problem."

      The Ford technician said he thinks the only way to solve the spark plug problem for consumers would be a costly and unlikely warranty extension by Ford.

      "Ford needs to be held responsible for the repairs of spark plug blowout and should extend the warranty to 100,000 miles regardless of age on spark plug blowout issue," he wrote. "They also should be forced to pay a fair amount of labor time."

      "Please convey to your readers that the dealer people do make an effort to help them to the extent that Ford allows," he said. "When Ford won't pay it would not be fair to us to repair the vehicles for free because we didn't build or design these engines but we are very sympathetic to them but we have to make a living too."

      Ford Engines 'Dropping Like Flies' with Spark Plug Blow-Outs...
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      Spit Spark Plug Ignites Ford Truck

      Feds Deny There's a Safety Problem, Refuse to Take Action

      Thousands of Ford truck owners have paid thousands of dollars to repair the damage caused by the mighty Ford Triton V-8 engine spitting a spark plug from its aluminum cylinder head.

      They're the lucky ones compared to Dan of Huntington Beach, California. They at least had a truck left to repair.

      Dan's 1997 F250 is a mass of charred rubber, melted glass and frayed wires.

      Dan's Truck

      The first plug blew from the number three cylinder on the passenger side of Dan's truck. He repaired it. Then 200 miles later the number four cylinder from the passenger side spit a spark plug.

      "This time the loose plug started a fuel fire and burned my truck down to the axles in 12 minutes," Dan wrote ConsumerAffairs.com. The truck was destroyed.

      "BEWARE. This could kill you," Dan warned. "It went up so fast we lost our cameras, computer, GPS and just got out ourselves."

      Other consumers agree the problem is a hazard.

      "Truly this is a dangerous situation because the fuel rail is right above the coil and spark plug. If this rail and injector break when the plug blows out this could result in a fire," said Robert of Quarryville, Pennsylvania, whose 2001 F250 Super Duty Crew Cab blew its #3 spark plug a few weeks ago.

      NHTSA: No Problem

      But at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a taxpayer-supported agency whose job is to protect the American public, federal employees disagree with Dan and Robert's warnings and have responded that no one is going to die because, as they see it, the spark plug issue presents no serious safety consequence.

      An attorney in Santa Clarita, California, had petitioned NHTSA, asking it to investigate reports that Ford SUVs, pickups, Crown Victorias and Mustangs sold in the 1997-2004 model years had spark plugs that can come loose and fly through the hood.

      Instead of putting consumer safety first, NHTSA is backing Ford. It's refusing to consider spit spark plugs beyond stating that its analysis of 474 complaints describing the incidents "found only a very few alleged any safety-related consequences. None of these showed any evidence of a serious safety consequence."

      For its part, Ford continues to stonewall the problem and refuses to acknowledge any responsibility, a policy that is causing unrest among Ford service managers and technicians. One service technician recently told ConsumerAffairs.com that, even when Ford agrees to repair one of the engines, it pays dealers so little for the repair that the technicians end up working free hours.

      NHTSA concluded its brief investigation with a haughty brush-off for Ford truck owners.

      "In the need to allocate and prioritize limited resources to best accomplish the agency's safety mission, the petition (for a full-scale investigation possibly leading to a recall) is denied."

      This is the same NHTSA that in the last year has recalled 45,000 Honda Civic hybrids because the engine could stall; 1.2 million Honda and Acura vehicles because their owners manual had incorrect information about NHTSA's "safety hotline;" a few hundred thousands Nissan Altimas and Sentras because the engine could stop running at slow speeds; 45,000 Chrysler vehiclesbecause leaking brake fluid could start an engine fire.

      The agency made Audi stage a second recall of some A6 sedans, claiming a previous recall had not fixed a headlight switch that could short out and start a fire.

      If complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com are any indication, few of the defects addressed by these recalls have caused widespread problems. Ford's spark plug problems, however, produce a steady stream of anguished complaints. While most don't involve fires, many have caused sudden engine failure that left consumers stranded on the roadside.

      Boxed In

      NHTSA might want to explain to David of Richfield, Ohio, that the safety plug blow-outs aren't a safety hazard.

      "I was driving my 2001 Ford F-150 from Cleveland to Columbus when all of the sudden I heard a loud pop then a loud continuous popping sound came from the engine," David said in a ConsumerAffairs.com complaint dated March 21, 2007. "At first I was a little scared because I was in the middle of traffic on I-71 boxed in between two semi trucks. I couldn't move to the right or left.

      "When I finally was able to move to the side of the road, I opened the hood and what did I find?" he wrote. " A spark plug melted to a piece of plastic and a spark plug coil with the spring sticking out sparking against another piece of plastic. I can only wonder what would have happened if I touched the energized spark coil or if it came in contact with metal and I touched the metal. Or even worse, what if the sparking coil came in contact with something flammable?"

      "I was lucky that I and my passengers were not killed," Dan said. "Will someone have to die before this problem is fixed?"

      Chris of Temple, Georgia, was driving home from work in his 2001 Expedition when he "heard a loud explosion as if some one had fired a gun right outside my door. The Expedition began operate poorly and was hard to control."

      "I pulled to the side of the road only to see my spark plug sitting on the intake manifold. The sparkplug blew out of my motor thru the coil pack and busted my pcv valve hose," Chris said.

      "I was driving my 2001 Ford F-250 with a V10 engine in some bad winter weather when I heard the engine pop," wrote Thomas of Bellevue, Iowa. "Luckily I was able to maintain control on slick roads after sudden loss of engine power. After getting out to inspect engine, I found the #1 spark plug still in the ruined ignition coil resting on top of the engine."

      "My wife was driving to work when the number 3 spark plug blew out of my 2002 f150 Lightning," Dennis of Alta Loma, California, reported. "My wife was stranded on the side of the road. 30 miles from home. For 4 hours at night."

      Not Uncommon

      Most of the complaints of spit spark plugs at ConsumerAffairs.com involve vehicles with Triton V-8 and V-10 engines in model years 1997 to 2002. This includes the Econoline vans, F-Series trucks, the Explorer, Expedition, Excursion, Crown Victoria and some models of the Mustang.

      More than 200 consumers have written to ConsumerAffairs.com about the problem over the last five years. In nearly every case, the Ford owners also complained to Ford, only to be told that the problem was not covered under their warranty and disclaiming any knowledge of a broader problem.

      Many Ford dealers feign surprise at the sight of a spark plug blown out of its position in the cylinder head and profess to have never seen anything like the mess spread out before them.

      Spit Spark Plug Ignites Ford Truck...
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