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    Restless Legs Syndrome Doubles Risk of Stroke, Heart Disease

    Largest study of its kind finds connection

    People with restless legs syndrome (RLS) are twice as likely to have a stroke or heart disease compared to people without RLS, and the risk is greatest in those with the most frequent and severe symptoms.

    That's according to research published in the January 1, 2008, issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

    The study, the largest of its kind enrolling both men and women, involved 3,433 people with an average age of 68 who were enrolled in the Sleep Heart Health Study.

    Participants were diagnosed with RLS by detailed questionnaire and asked if they had been diagnosed with a variety of systemic diseases including cardiovascular disease and cerebrovascular disease. Of the participants, nearly seven percent of women and three percent of men had RLS.

    The study found people with RLS were more than twice as likely to have cardiovascular disease or cerebrovascular disease. The results remained the same after adjusting for age, sex, race, body mass index, diabetes, high blood pressure, high blood pressure medication, HDL/LDL cholesterol levels, and smoking.

    "The association of RLS with heart disease and stroke was strongest in those people who had RLS symptoms at least 16 times per month," said study author John W. Winkelman, MD, PhD, with Harvard Medical School in Boston. "There was also an increased risk among people who said their RLS symptoms were severe compared to those with less bothersome symptoms."

    Winkelman says although this study does not show that RLS causes cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, a number of potential mechanics for such a process exist.

    In particular, most people with RLS have as many as 200 to 300 periodic leg movements per night of sleep and these leg movements are associated with substantial acute increases in both blood pressure and heart rate, which may, over the long term, produce cardiovascular or cerebrovascular disease.

    Winkelman says there are limitations to the study, including that the diagnosis of RLS was self-reported by questionnaire rather than by clinical interview.

    Restless Legs Syndrome Doubles Risk of Stroke, Heart Disease...
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    Hyping Echinacea with Bad Numbers

    The press mangles the statistics on an unpersuasive Echinacea study

    To read the headlines, June 25 was a banner day for cold sufferers:

    Echinacea, the North American flower widely used to protect against colds, actually works - and works well - a scientific review found, read the Bloomberg News. The plant, also called the purple cornflower, cut the chances of getting a cold by nearly two- thirds compared with a placebo.

    But before you rush out to buy some Echinacea, it pays to double-check those statistics.

    First of all, the study Evaluation of echinacea for the prevention and treatment of the common cold: a meta-analysis (Shah, S.A. et al., Lancet Infectious Diseases 7 (July), 2007) didnt show that Echinacea cut the chance of getting a cold by nearly two-thirds.

    The accurate number is less than one third. Unfortunately, every major news organization that gave figures about the studys claims for Echinaceas effectiveness made the same mistake, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

    Furthermore, this scientific review is nothing more than a rehash of old data, sliced and diced to provide a different and less-than-convincing result. Thats not to say that the study is without value, but its far from a definitive proof of Echinaceas efficacy as even the author of the study admits.

    Were not saying without doubt that Echinacea works, says Dr Craig I. Coleman of the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy, an author of the study. Ultimately, what were trying to suggest is that more studies should be done.

    Thats a bit of a let down from the definitive statement that Echinacea actually works and works well. In fact, the best study to date has found that Echinacea does not have a statistically significant effect, and this new study does little to revise that perspective.

    The problem with the medias reports boils down to statistical illiteracy: Few reporters who covered the story understood the difference in significance between a top quality, randomized, double-blinded, controlled study and a questionable meta-analysis. And apparently none of them had the basic statistical knowledge necessary to report the claims of Echinaceas effect accurately.

    Making a hash of the data

    So what is a meta-analysis, and why do researchers do them?

    Think of a meta-analysis as a powerful but tricky microscope. If used correctly, it reveals details you cant see otherwise. But if used incorrectly, it can distort the picture so much that it becomes unrecognizable.

    Chance is the fundamental problem that obscures medical researchers ability to see the effects of a treatment. For example, antihistamines may work great for my allergies but leave my friend just as allergic and sleepy to boot.

    If someone studying an antihistamines effectiveness against allergies happens to get a group of folks mostly like me, the antihistamine will look like it works terrifically, much better than it actually does. But if the researcher gets patients who are mostly like my friend, the drug will look like a dud.

    One way of protecting against this problem is to study lots of patients. After all, if a researcher studies ten thousand people, its pretty unlikely that the great majority of them will all respond unusually strongly or unusually weakly to the treatment.

    Small studies can still show definitively that a treatment works if its effect turns out to be really big. Suppose, for example, that a study of a cancer drug contained only twenty patients but their tumors all vanished after receiving the drug. In that case, the researcher would be pretty sure the drug was doing something.

    But the smaller the number of patients, the bigger the effect has to be for the researcher to be sufficiently confident.

    This is why statisticians developed the notion of statistical significance. For any size population, statisticians figured out how big an effect you need to see in order to be 95% sure that youre not just seeing random variations. An effect that is smaller than that is said to be statistically insignificant.

    So in a small study, a treatment may seem to have a sizable positive effect but still be statistically insignificant. Then the researcher is left wondering whether the effect was real but the study was too small to detect it with confidence, or whether the treatment just didnt work.

    Thats just the situation that meta-analyses can sometimes help with.

    If several small studies have been conducted on a single treatment, a researcher can combine the data from all the studies together and analyze them as if they were from a single large study. Then the researcher can see small effects that were invisible in the individual studies.

    Lots of traps

    Its a great idea, and if done carefully, it can be revealing. But meta-analyses can fall into lots of traps.

    Combining studies is only legitimate if theyre really studying the same thing, but most of the time, studies have important differences in design. Furthermore, if the original studies are poorly designed, the meta-analysis will be lousy too.

    Another problem is publication bias: If a treatment has a small effect, some studies will probably, by chance, show a negative effect. But studies that get negative results very rarely get published, so the researcher doing the meta-analysis will get an artificially positive collection of studies.

    The result of all of these things is that the quality of the meta-analysis depends largely on the judgment of the researcher selecting the studies. Different meta-analyses that include different studies can come to strikingly different conclusions.

    Skepticism common

    As a result of that, most doctors and researchers view meta-analyses with a fair bit of skepticism.

    One good experiment controlled, randomized, double-blind, with a reasonable number of subjects beats a meta-analysis of any number of observational studies, says Philip Stark, a statistician at the University of California, Berkeley.

    The recent Echinacea meta-analysis has been criticized for all the weaknesses meta-analyses so often have.

    The original studies vary widely. Some administered the cold virus to the participants and some just observed whether the participants got colds on their own. Some used one species of the plant and some another. Some studied Echinacea mixed with other products like vitamin C or propolis. And, the critics say, some were well done and some were simply badly designed.

    Back in 2005, Ronald B. Turner of the University of Virginia School of Medicine and his colleagues performed the most careful study of Echinacea to date. They created their own tincture of Echinacea so that they could carefully control the potency. Then they divided 437 participants at random into two groups and gave half of them Echinacea and half a placebo for a week.

    Neither the participants nor the nurses administering the treatments knew which was which. Then the nurses inoculated them with a cold virus. The patients stayed in hotel rooms for the next five days, and the nurses monitored their symptoms.

    To everyones disappointment, the effect of the Echinacea was not statistically significant. And this study met all of Starks criteria and more it was randomized, double-blind, and placebo-controlled.

    Even as carefully as Turner had designed and performed his study, there were still criticisms of it.

    Turner used Echinacea angustifolia, and some say that a different species, Echinacea purpurea, is more effective. Furthermore, some argued that Turner should have used a higher dosage of Echinacea than he did.

    So despite the disappointing results of Turners study, its not unimaginable that some form of Echinacea, in some dosage, is effective.

    But it hasnt been proven. And Colemans meta-analysis isnt enough to outweigh Turners careful study. At most, it suggests exactly what Coleman says it suggests: that more studies should be done.

    Looking at the numbers

    In general, if a meta-analysis shows a surprising result, something is fishy. And if it shows that a treatment has a surprisingly, large effect, something is even fishier. Remember that a meta-analysis is like a microscope: it helps to show small effects that cant be seen by smaller studies.

    As the press reported it, Echinacea reduced colds by 58 percent an enormous amount. If Echinacea were really that effective, previous studies would have clearly shown it.

    That should have been enough to set off some alarm bells. And an inspection of the numbers shows that the press simply didnt know enough statistics to read the study correctly.

    Computing how much Echinacea reduced the chance of getting a cold is pretty straightforward from the data in the study. The participants who received Echinacea got a cold about 65 percent of the time, whereas the participants who got a placebo instead got a cold about 45 percent of the time. So those who took Echinacea got about 30 percent fewer colds ((65-45)/65), not 58 percent fewer colds.

    So why did all the news reports say 58 percent?

    Because the study stated that Echinacea reduced the odds of getting a cold by 58 percent. In regular speech, we use the words odds to mean the same thing as the word chance, but in statistics, theyre different.

    The odds of something happening are defined as the chance of it happening divided by the chance of it not happening. Gamblers tend to talk about odds, but not many of the rest of us do. Instead, we keep it simpler and just talk about the chance that something happens.

    The study was absolutely right that the odds were 58 percent lower for the Echinacea users (though one might suspect that the researchers chose to report the odds rather than the probability because of the more dramatic percentage).

    Among the participants who took Echinacea, about 45 percent got a cold and 55 percent didnt. So the odds of getting a cold were 45/55, or .81. Among those who received a placebo, 65 percent got a cold and 35 percent didnt, so the odds were 65/35, or 1.88.

    The reduction in odds, then, was (1.88 - .81)/1.88, or 58 percent. But that 58 percent does not mean that the Echinacea-users got 58 percent fewer colds. In fact, it doesnt mean much of anything that an ordinary person can relate to.

    I think Im getting the sniffles

    What does all this mean for the regular person who is trying to decide what to do at the first sign of a cold?

    First, science hasnt proven that Echinacea works.

    Turners study shows pretty definitively that 900 milligrams a day of Echinacea angustifolia doesnt help significantly. The most positive studies have been done on the leaves and flowers of Echinacea purpurea, but none of these studies are of the size and quality of Turners study.

    So the evidence for it is pretty weak, though its also true that even placebos, which have no active ingredient, often make people feel better. If youve been taking Echinacea and you feel like its helped you, you may be right even if it isnt having a direct biological impact.

    Echinacea's risks

    Echinaceas questionable benefit has to be weighed against its risks. The safety of Echinacea hasnt been extensively studied, though it seems to be well tolerated by most people.

    Even so, some people definitely shouldnt take it, like those with auto-immune disorders like asthma or lupus. Echinacea also may well interact negatively with many common prescription drugs, like statins, antidepressants, and protease inhibitors for HIV.

    Consulting with your doctor before taking it would be wise. And, if you do decide to take it, you should only do so for short periods, either at the first sign of a cold or for a few days before a situation where exposure to a virus is likely, such as air travel.

    You might also want to consider that native Echinacea species are dwindling because of habitat reduction and over-harvesting. But, in any case, you shouldnt take it on the basis of false claims in over-hyped news reports.


    Julie Rehmeyer is a freelance math and science writer and the math columnist for Science News. She has a Master's degree in mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and taught mathematics and the classics at St. John's College in Santa Fe. This article originally appeared at

    Hyping Echinacea with Bad Numbers: The press mangles the statistics on an unpersuasive Echinacea study. The accurate number is less than one third....
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    NHTSA Dismisses Public Citizen Ford Complaints

    Flex-fuel vehicles prone to stalling, consumer group argues

    Regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are siding with the Ford Motor Co., ruling that claims by the consumer group Public Citizen that some flex-fuel Ford and Mercury vehicles are defective are not substantiated.

    Public Citizen asked NHTSA in October 2006 to investigate Ford flex-fuel claims for several models but NHTSA rejected the petition.

    Headed by former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook, Public Citizen claimed that 2003-05 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable vehicles do not perform up to standards when fueled with E85 which is composed of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.

    Public Citizen argued that the engine stalling in the Fords was a safety hazard.

    The consumer group asked that NHTSA revoke the extra fuel economy credits Ford received for building 228,000 of the cars.

    In justifying the decision, NHTSA said repairs recommended by Ford fix the performance problems in the vehicles.

    NHTSA said that while the Ford models encountered a problem starting when using E85, stalling in the vehicles was rare.

    NHTSA reported no crashes related to the complaints and said the decision does not prevent the agency from taking action if new evidence of a safety defect emerges.

    Regulators at the NHTSA are siding with the Ford Motor Co., ruling that claims by Public Citizen that some flex-fuel Ford and Mercury vehicles are defectiv...
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      Medical Uses of Marijuana

      The Healthy Geezer

      Q. I heard that marijuana helps glaucoma. Id like to try it, but wont I get in trouble?

      A. Marijuana can help your glaucoma and it could definitely get you in trouble because its illegal.

      Marijuana refers to the parts of the Cannabis sativa plant, which has been used for medicinal purposes for more than 4,800 years. Doctors in ancient China, Greece and Persia used it as a pain reliever and for gastrointestinal disorders and insomnia.

      Cannabis as a medicine was common throughout most of the world in the 1800s. It was used as the primary pain reliever until the invention of aspirin.

      The United States, in effect, made prescriptions for Cannabis illegal through the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. The only opponent to the legislation was the representative of the American Medical Association.

      Marijuana contains at least 60 chemicals called cannabinoids. THC is the main component responsible for marijuana's mind-altering effect. Marinol (dronabinol), a prescription drug taken by oral capsule, is a man-made version of THC

      One of THC's medical uses is for the treatment of nausea. It can improve mild to moderate nausea caused by cancer chemotherapy and help reduce nausea and weight loss in people with AIDS.

      Older people, especially those with no marijuana experience, may not tolerate THCs mind-altering side effects as well as young people. Doctors generally prescribe several kinds of newer anti-nausea drugs with fewer side effects before resorting to Marinol.

      Glaucoma increases pressure in the eyeball, which can lead to vision loss. Smoking marijuana reduces pressure in the eyes. Your doctor can prescribe other medications to treat glaucoma, but these can lose their effectiveness over time.

      Researchers are trying to develop new medications based on cannabis to treat pain. THC may work as well in treating cancer pain as codeine. A recent study found that cannabinoids significantly reduced pain in people with multiple sclerosis, a disease of the nervous system.

      Though some doctors and patients suggest marijuana has a legitimate use, the federal government disagrees.

      The law classifies marijuana as one of the most dangerous drugs that have no recognized medical use. The penalties for possession of marijuana can range from a small fine to a prison sentence.

      Along with the legal implications of smoking marijuana are the health problems such as memory impairment, loss of coordination and the potential for withdrawal symptoms and hallucinations. And, inhaling marijuana smoke exposes you to substances that may cause cancer.

      One study has indicated that the risk of heart attack more than quadruples in the first hour after smoking marijuana. The researchers suggest that a heart attack might be caused by marijuanas effects on blood pressure, heart rate and the capacity of blood to carry oxygen.

      Most polls show that about three out of four people approve of medical marijuana. This has led to the introduction of bills in Congress which would eliminate federal controls in states which approve medical marijuana. None of these bills has been voted into law.

      There is legislation on the books in the majority of states allowing the medical use of marijuana. Most require that it be prescribed. This provision presents a problem because federal agencies control the power to prescribe.

      All Rights Reserved © 2007 by Fred Cicetti

      Medical Uses of Marijuana...
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      Tests Find More Toxic Pet Toys

      Toxic toys may be hazardous to humans as well as pets

      Concerns about toxins in pet toys -- the focus of a investigation in September -- continue to be raised nationwide.

      The latest concerns surfaced in a recent investigation by WFLD-TV in Chicago, which had a private laboratory test 15 Chinese-made pet products for lead.

      Tests conducted by Trace Laboratories, Inc. of Palatine, Illinois, revealed the ink logo on a Paws 'N Claws tennis ball for dogs contained 27,200 parts per million of lead. That's 45 times higher than the national level allowed for lead paint in children's toys. Federal law sets that limit at 600 parts per million.

      There are, however, no national standards for lead and other toxins in pet toys.

      Trace Laboratories also analyzed a ceramic pet bowl and discovered the paint on the bottom of that product contained 2,890 parts per million of lead nearly five times the 600 parts per million benchmark.

      "I was surprised (by these results) because of all the exposure right now regarding lead in toys," Mitchell Sas, general manager of Trace Laboratories, told us. "You'd think suppliers would be more cautious and get an independent lab (to test the products)."

      WFLD purchased the pet products from a Dollar General store and said it could not reach the manufacturers.

      The station's tests come on the heels of a recent investigation that brought the issue of toxins in pet toys to light.

      Standards needed

      Our investigation also triggered calls for national "acceptable standards and levels" for lead and other toxins in pet toys from the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, veterinarians, and dog and cat owners across the country.

      Earlier this month, the director of the Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also urged pet toy makers to test their products and publicly disclose their findings.

      As we reported, we hired a private laboratory in Texas to analyze four Chinese-made pet toys -- two for dogs and two for cats -- for lead and four other heavy metals.

      ExperTox Inc. Analytical Laboratory discovered one of the dog toys -- a latex one that looks like a green monster -- contained what the lab's forensic toxicologist called high levels of lead and the cancer producing agent chromium.

      A cloth catnip toy also tested positive for "a tremendous amount" of the toxic metal cadmium. Two veterinarians, however, told us the levels of toxic metals in the toys did not pose a health risk to dogs or cats.

      ExperTox also analyzed two other Chinese-made pet toys a cloth hedgehog for dogs and a plastic dumbbell toy for cats. The lab detected cadmium in those toys, but said the levels were "about the amount you'd find in one cigarette" and not considered significant.

      We purchased the toys from a Wal-Mart in Kansas City, Missouri. All the toys had a tag attached that read "Marketed by Wal-Mart stores and Made in China."

      The levels of lead and other toxins in the dog and cat toys we tested were significantly lower than those found in the pet products Trace Laboratories analyzed. Nonetheless, ExperTox's forensic toxicologist called his lab's findings concerning and even suggested that Wal-Mart pull the products off the market.

      "Or put a warning label on them that says if you put this (toy) in your mouth you will get poisoned," Dr. Ernest Lykissa, a forensic toxicologist and director of ExperTox, told us. "There is nothing good about the agents (in these toys) that I'm reporting to you."

      Green monster

      The green monster toy, Dr. Lykissa said, contained 907.4 micrograms per kilogram of lead.

      "That's almost one part per million," he said. "With that kind of concentration, if a dog is chewing on it or licking it, he's getting a good source of lead."

      The green monster toy also contained what Dr. Lykissa considered high levels of chromium -- 334.9 micrograms per kilogram.

      "With that kind of chromium in there you have what can be an extremely toxic toy if they (animals) put it in their mouths. And dogs put things in their mouths. If a dog puts this in his mouth, he runs a big chance of getting some type of metal toxicity that may shorten his life."

      ExperTox also detected other toxic metals in the green monster toy.

      "There's cadmium, arsenic, and mercury in there," Dr. Lykissa said. "This is not a clean toy. This is toxic. Bank on it."

      ExperTox's tests on the catnip toy detected "concerning" levels of cadmium 236 micrograms per kilogram. "That one is worrisome to me," Dr. Lykissa said. "That's a big number. It's a good dose of cadmium."

      Toxins come right off

      There's another reason Dr. Lykissa expressed concerns about the heavy metals in these chew toys.

      "These (toxic) materials came off the toys freely, like with the lick of the tongue from a dog or cat," he said. "They were readily liberated from these toys. We didn't take a sledge hammer and pound on them. I just did what a dog or cat would do by licking it. That's why this is so serious."

      Dr. Lykissa said toxicologists cut off a small piece from each of the toys, weighed the samples, and put them in acidic water.

      "We left the samples for a while and then heated them up to body temperature," he said. "Then we put them in a machine (called an ICP-MS- or Inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry), and that machine told us this is lead and this is chromium . . .

      "We didn't dissolve the toys," he added. "These materials were leeching off the toys. Whatever leeched off the toys is what I'm reporting to you. The material came right off. Somebody's saliva or the sweat in their hands would freely pick up these materials. And that's absorbing it. If you ate the materials, like a dog might, it would be worse."

      Physicist agrees

      A physicist who reviewed ExperTox's findings echoed Dr. Lykissa's concerns.

      "The fact that these (toxins) were leeching off the toys makes this much worse," said Jim Norling, an Ohio physicist. "He (Dr. Lykissa) was testing how much lead leeched out of the toys. That sounds like water soluble lead, which is more toxic than solid lead that is encapsulated. Water soluble lead is easily absorbed by the body, so this ups the ante on being toxic."

      He added: "There's a big difference between lead that is contained and lead that is leeching in water."

      Trace Laboratories used a different procedure to test the pet products it analyzed for WFLD-TV. That lab used what's called an X-ray fluorescence analyzer.

      "It basically shoots a beam (at the area tested) and reads back the material content in the product," said the lab's General Manager, Mitchell Sas. "In this case, we only screened for lead."

      Meanwhile, ExperTox's findings struck a personal chord with Norling and his wife, Karen.

      Their two Miniature Schnauzers -- Angus and Taylor -- have repeatedly played with Wal-Mart's green monster toys. The dogs, they said, chewed on the toys for days and eventually tore the squeakers out of them.

      Karen is worried about lead building up her dogs' bodies and the long-term affects that could have on their health.

      "I wish to God he (Dr. Lykissa) was wrong about all this because if he's not my dogs will inevitably suffer, which will cause me to suffer deeply in the long run."

      Her husband shares those concerns for their dogs and himself and his wife.

      "Our dogs love that (toy)," Norling said. "We throw it to them and our hands get wet. Now I wonder how much lead we were exposed to. I work with my hands and if I had a cut, that lead would go directly into my blood and that's very bad."

      Wal-Mart dodges

      Wal-Mart, however, defended the pet toys we tested and said they were safe. The company also criticized Dr. Lykissa, saying he "severely misinterpreted" the results.

      "After reviewing these test results provided to usthe results of these tests actually prove the products are VERY safe," said Wal-Mart's hired spokeswoman, Melissa O'Brien. She works for a private public relations firm called Edelman. "If these measurements are in fact the results, as you have reported, they have been severely misinterpreted by the director of ExperTox's lab, if he is reporting these levels to be 'high' or dangerous.

      "The conclusions drawn in this article appear to have been based on incorrect interpretations of the data, and based on the opinions of a person (who is) not an expert in consumer product testing," O'Brien said.

      O'Brien did not cite any scientific credentials and did not refer us to any scientific employees or consultants to back up her statements.

      ExperTox said Dr. Lykissa is an expert at testing consumer products. The lab also called its findings "rock solid."

      A veterinary toxicologist who reviewed ExperTox's results said the levels of toxic metals in the toys did not pose a health risk to dogs or cats.

      "I don't see any of those numbers being a toxicity concern for dogs or cats," said Dr. Mike Murphy of the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine. "Latex paint can contain one-half to one percent of lead, which is 10,000 parts per million.

      "I disagree with the interpretation that's being made (by Lykissa)," added Dr. Murphy, who holds a Ph.D. in toxicology. "I consider these to be extremely low numbers and they are not a toxicological concern for pet owners."

      After learning about Trace's findings, however, Dr. Murphy told the American Veterinary Medical Association that pet owners should be careful about lead exposure in their dogs and cats.

      "If your pet is chewing and swallowing a toy then maybe that's not something you should allow the animal to play with," Dr. Murphy said, adding there are other -- more toxic -- sources of lead in many households, including old lead paint, fishing weights, curtain weights, and some older molded-metal toys.

      More testing needed

      Dr. Steven Hansen, director of the Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal, said his lab fielded more than 200,000 hotline calls in the past two years. And none of those calls came from pet owners worried about a toy causing lead poisoning in their pets.

      Dr. Hansen, however, urged pet toy makers to test their products for lead and other toxins.

      "To reassure pet owners, we encourage manufacturers to test pet products for lead and other contaminants and post findings on their corporate Web sites," he said.

      An Illinois pet owner, who in August paid to have 24 of her dogs' Chinese-made toys tested for lead, agrees.

      Nancy R. of Orland Park, Illinois, hired a laboratory at the Illinois Department of Agriculture to run the tests.

      "The only reason I tested these dog toys is because I have lost three Shelties in the last four years and I can only figure out why one of them died," said Nancy, who is also a nurse.

      Tennis ball

      The Illinois Department of Agriculture's lab found the highest levels of lead in a PetSmart tennis ball -- 335.7 parts per million. It detected the lowest levels of lead in a Hartz Rubber Percival Platypus 0.02 parts per million.

      "These are all within the acceptable limits for lead content in children's toys in Illinois," the lab's director, Dr. Gene Niles, told us. The veterinarian is a Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Toxicology (DABVT). "There are no levels for lead content in pet toys. Are these numbers high or low? All I can tell you is that in Illinois, the state allows up to 600 parts per million for lead in kid's toys and these are all within that guideline."

      Nancy, however, says new guidelines are needed specifically for pet toys. And these latest findings by Trace Laboratories illustrate her concerns.

      "I want standards for safe levels of lead and other toxins for pet toys," she said. "And I want to know what they (those in the pet industry or with legislative authority) are going to do about getting these standards.

      "Originally, my lab convinced me all my toys were safe. But now, I don't knowI don't know if I feel safe with the toys out there. I hope everybody stops blaming each other and starts solving the problem. And the problem is we have no standards for pet toys."


      In the meantime, how can pet owners tell if their dogs or cats have lead poisoning?

      Dr. Frederick Oehme, professor of toxicology and diagnostic medicine at Kansas State University, said symptoms can include a slightly anorexic appearance, loss of appetite, and behavior changes like twitching and whining in their sleep.

      In more advanced cases, he said, there are neurological symptoms that include mild to severe seizures.

      Pet owners who notice any of these symptoms in their dogs or cats should immediately contact their veterinarian, Dr. Oehme said.

      "Veterinarians are in a very unique position because, when they see lead poisoning in a pet, the veterinarian can then ask if other members of the family -- particularly children -- have been checked for lead poisoning since they live in the same environment," he said. "I've seen a dog that tested with high levels of lead ... from lead soldering, and, when the owner was tested for lead, he also had high blood levels of lead."

      More about pets ...

      Tests Find More Toxic Pet Toys...
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      Hackers Lurk In Many Holiday Emails

      Your computer could take up a life of crime

      December 27, 2007
      Clicking on Web links in holiday-related e-mail messages is a dangerous practice that could put your identity or your computer in the hands of criminals.

      "Last year security researchers saw the creation of the world's largest 'botnet,' or collection of personal computers being controlled by hackers, according to Gary Warner, director of Research in Computer Forensics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

      This botnet, called "the Storm Botnet," has at various times included more than 3 million infected computers, Warner said. One of the primary ways machines became infected was by users clicking on e-mails that were often associated with holidays, including Valentine's Day, Labor Day, Fourth of July and others.

      Over the Christmas holiday, the creators of the "Storm Worm" sent e-mails with dozens of Christmas and New Year's-related greeting messages.

      A computer whose owner clicks on the link in the e-mail message will be attacked by malware, which tries to join the computer to the criminal's Botnet. Once joined, the computer begins sending spam messages for the criminals, and may be used in other types of cybercrimes.

      The same advice that we normally give applies here, Warner said. Clicking on Web links in e-mail messages is a dangerous practice, which could give your identity, or in this case, your computer, to the criminals.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      Hackers Lurk In Many Holiday Emails...
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      Gift Cards Should Be Used Quickly

      Unused cards may lose value; some may even expire

      Chances are, when you opened your presents this year there was at least one gift card. The National Retail Federation projected the average consumer would spend $123 on gift cards this year.

      If you got one, dont let it gather dust, experts advise.

      A study conducted earlier this year for Consumer Reports found that 27 percent of gift card recipients have not used one or more of the cards, up from 19 percent at the same time last year. And among consumers with unredeemed cards from last season, 51 percent have 2 or more.

      When cards are not used, the value can sometimes decline, due to fees and other charges, making the cards a bigger gift for the retailers than the recipient.

      Its easy to understand the appeal of gift cards. Theyre the perfect no-muss, no-fuss gift for the finicky family member or friend. Its a no-brainer... said Todd Marks, senior editor at Consumer Reports.

      But gift-givers and recipients alike need to be aware of the pitfalls and make sure that precautions are taken so that the recipient gets the gift and not the retailers, he said.

      Marks suggests spending the gift card quickly, as some carry an expiration date. Some even have a maintenance fee.

      Also, spend it to the last penny. If the card balance gets so low that theres nothing to buy, ask a merchant to do a split-tender transaction. That involves using the remaining card balance for part of the transaction and another form of payment for the rest.

      One the entire balance has been spent, dont throw the card away just yet. Some merchants require it for returns.

      Gift Cards Should Be Used Quickly...
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      As Credit Delinquency Rises, So Does Credit Relief Scrutiny

      States struggling to control credit counselors

      While government statistics show consumer spending is holding steady, some economists fret about the rising level of debt Americans are putting on credit cards, and whether or not theyll ever be able to pay it off.

      The Associated Press reported this week that its analysis of data from credit card lenders shows a big spike in the number of accounts more than 90 days in arrears. Thats the delinquency period when most debt is turned over to collection agencies.

      As more consumers fall behind on credit payments, states are grappling with increasing activity of so-called debt counselors and debt settlement services.

      In West Virginia, Attorney General Darrell McGraw has won a court order temporarily forbidding a Florida law firm from offering debt settlement services in the state.

      McGraw says the firm, Hess Kennedy, of Coral Springs, Florida, claims to assist consumers who are struggling financially to make payments to their creditors. McGraw said he has seen more of this increasingly common, and sometimes controversial business as consumer credit card debt has ballooned in the past few years.

      Debt settlers such as Hess Kennedy make repayment plans to help consumers repay outstanding debts, at a deep discount, to avoid being sued or filing for bankruptcy. Monthly payments are then made by consumers to the debt settlers in turn for which the debt settlers claim to negotiate with creditors to reduce the amount of debt owed.

      Although debt settlement services are unrestricted in some states, West Virginias law regarding debt settlement only permits for-profit companies to charge a monthly service fee of two percent of the payments made by consumers.

      Although McGraws investigation is incomplete, the attorney general says it appears that Hess Kennedy was charging more than the two percent fee allowed by state law.

      "Although the debt settlement approach to debt relief may work for some persons, the service has legal consequences and should only be offered by persons licensed to practice law in West Virginia, McGraw said.

      My office will continue to scrutinize the debt relief industry in an effort to protect consumers who are already facing dire financial circumstances from paying excessive fees for services that may leave them in worse shape than before."

      As Credit Delinquency Rises, So Does Credit Relief Scrutiny...
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      Can Oatmeal Really Lower Your Cholesterol?

      The Healthy Geezer

      Q.Can eating oatmeal really lower your cholesterol or are the cereal companies selling us a story?

      The short answer is yes, oatmeal can lower your cholesterol. Now for the long answer.

      There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber is acted upon by the normal bacteria in your intestines. Insoluble fiber is not digested by the body and promotes regularity and softens stools.

      Wheat bran, whole grain products and vegetables are good sources of insoluble fiber.

      Soluble fiber appears to reduce your body's absorption of cholesterol from the intestines.

      Oatmeal contains soluble fiber that reduces your low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the "bad" cholesterol that can increase your risk of heart attacks and strokes. This type of fiber is also found in such foods as kidney beans, brussels sprouts, apples, pears, barley and prunes.

      The American Dietetic Association recommends a healthy diet include 25 to 35 grams of fiber a day, including both soluble and insoluble fiber. (Soluble fiber should make up 5 to 10 grams of your fiber intake.) However, Americans only consume about half that amount.

      There are other foods that work against cholesterol.

      Soy protein, found in such products as tofu, soy nuts, soy milk and soy burgers, can help lower blood levels of LDL cholesterol, particularly when it's substituted for animal protein.

      Ingesting 25 to 50 grams of soy protein a day lowers LDL cholesterol by 4 percent to 8 percent. Thats a lot of soy. People with the highest cholesterol levels seem to benefit the most from soy protein.

      Women with breast cancer or who are at high risk of breast cancer should consult with their doctors before eating a soy, because it is not clear how these plant estrogens might affect them.

      Studies have shown that walnuts can significantly reduce cholesterol levels in the blood. Rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, walnuts may also help keep blood vessels more healthy and elastic.

      When walnuts represent 20 percent of the calories in a cholesterol-lowering diet, they reduce LDL cholesterol by 12 percent. Almonds appear to have a similar effect.

      All nuts are high in calories, so use them as replacements for high-calorie foods with high levels of saturated fats.

      Omega-3 fatty acids in fish are noted for lowering triglycerides, another form of fat in your blood. They also benefit the heart in other ways.

      The highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids are in mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon. Other good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil and soybean oil.

      Some foods are fortified with plant substances called sterols or stanols, which are similar in structure to cholesterol; this helps them block the absorption of cholesterol in the intestines.

      Margarines and orange juice that have been fortified with plant sterols can help reduce LDL cholesterol by more than 10 percent.

      The American Heart Association recommends foods fortified with plant sterols only for people who with high levels of LDL cholesterol.

      You may want to try eating more soluble fiber, soy protein, walnuts and fatty fish. The next step would be the addition of foods fortified with plant sterols. Eating a combination of these cholesterol-lowering foods increases the benefit.

      Of course, if youre a geezer and you plan to make a change in your habits that could affect your health, it is recommended that you consult your doctor first.

      All Rights Reserved © 2007 by Fred Cicetti

      Oatmeal contains soluble fiber that reduces your low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the "bad" cholesterol that can increase your risk of heart attacks and stro...
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      Finding Safe Toys to Give Your Pet

      Lack of federal oversight leaves consumers on their own

      "To reassure pet owners, we encourage manufacturers to test pet products for lead and other contaminants and post findings on their corporate Web sites," s..

      Sensitivity to Caffeine Increases with Age

      The Healthy Geezer

      Q. Ive noticed that I cant drink a cup of regular coffee after mid-afternoon. It keeps me awake at night. I used to be able to drink coffee at dinnertime and it never bothered me. Is this another age thing?

      A. Uh-huh. Sensitivity to caffeinethe pick-me-up in coffeetends to increase as you get older. Children metabolize caffeine quicker than adults.

      About 90 percent of Americans consume caffeine daily. More than half of all American adults consume more than 300 milligrams of caffeine every day, making it America's most popular drug.

      Caffeine occurs naturally in many plants, including coffee beans, tea leaves and cocoa nuts. It is therefore found in a wide range of food products. Caffeine is added artificially to many others, including a variety of beverages.

      The most common sources of caffeine for Americans are coffee, tea, colas, chocolate and some over-the-counter medications.

      Here are some useful numbers to help you determine how much caffeine you take in:

      • A 6-ounce cup of coffee100 mg
      • A 6-ounce cup of tea70 mg
      • A 12-ounce can of cola50 mg
      • An ounce of chocolate6 mg
      • One tablet of Extra Strength Excedrin65mg
      • One tablet of Anacin32 mg
      • One tablet of Maximum Strength NoDoz200 mg

      For most people, 200 to 300 milligrams a day aren't harmful. But, if you are sensitive to caffeine or use of certain drugs, you may want to cut down or eliminate caffeine from your diet. Your caffeine consumption is worth discussing with your doctor.

      Caffeine can cause restlessness, anxiety, irritability, muscle tremors, sleeplessness, headaches, nausea, diarrhea and abnormal heart rhythms.

      Some medicines and supplements interact negatively with caffeine. These include some antibiotics and bronchodilators. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about whether caffeine might affect the medicines you take.

      In the practice of medicine, caffeine is useful as a cardiac stimulant and also as a mild diuretic. Caffeine is an addictive drug. It stimulates like amphetamines, cocaine, and heroin.

      If you feel you have to have caffeine every day, then you are addicted to it. Eliminating caffeine suddenly can cause withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches and fatigue. These symptoms usually pass after several days.

      Here are some tips if you want to chase the caffeine monkey:

      Read labels carefully for ingredients and keep track of the caffeine you consume.

      Gradually reduce the amount of caffeine you take in. This will enable you to acclimate to less caffeine and reduce the effects of withdrawal.

      Start drinking decaffeinated coffee, tea and soda.

      Brew your tea for less time to cut down on caffeine. Or try herbal teas which are caffeine-free.

      Check the caffeine content in over-the-counter medications that you take. If you can, switch to caffeine-free forms of the medications you need.

      All Rights Reserved © 2007 by Fred Cicetti

      About 90 percent of Americans consume caffeine daily. More than half of all American adults consume more than 300 mg of caffeine every day, making it Ameri...
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      Fur Flies Over 'Mislabeled' Fur

      Humane Society calls out retailers over phony faux fur

      Some of this seasons faux fur apparel is very realistic. Thats because, according to the Humane Society of the United States, its not faux at all, but real fur being purposely mislabeled, in violation of federal law.

      The group says the mislabeled fur garments are being sold at six major retailers: Bloomingdale's, Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor, Dillard's, Saks Fifth Avenue and

      Certain jackets sold by these companies, under the brand names Burberry, Andrew Marc, Marc New York, Preston & York, Aqua, Ramosport and Adam & Eve, were found to be falsely advertised or mislabeled as faux fur or "ecological" fur when in fact they are trimmed with real animal fur, the Human Society said in a statement.

      This isnt the first time this has happened, the group claims. It says its investigation last winter found the same stores selling real fur as fake fur.

      "Shoppers should be outraged that companies continue to sell as fauxwhat is actually real fur, perhaps from animals skinned alive in China," said Kristin Leppert, director of The HSUS's fur-free campaign. "Congress and the Federal Trade Commission need to take swift action to protect consumers and animals." customer service indicated that garments advertised as "ecological fur" are fake fur, the group said.

      The HSUS said it identified the fur as real through laboratory testing and by cutting open the lining of the trim to reveal skin. In contrast, the hairs of fake fur contain a fabric or mesh backing.

      Loopholes and labels

      Falsely advertising or mislabeling a real fur product is a violation of the federal Fur Products Labeling Act, which the Federal Trade Commission is empowered to enforce by seizure of false or deceptively advertised or labeled garments, the initiation of proceedings for injunctive relief, and the imposition of monetary penalties, which can range up to $5,000 per violation.

      Despite the groups charges, the retailers may not, in fact, be in technical violation of the law. And therein, according to HSUS, lies the rub.

      Among the alleged violations pointed out by HSUS is a Burberry brand jacket advertised online by Saks Fifth Avenue as "faux." The group says the jacket's label does not indicate that it contains fur, but laboratory tests reveal that it is trimmed with rabbit fur. The Fur Products Labeling Act currently requires the labeling of fur apparel only if the garments contain more than $150 worth of fur.

      "Because of this loophole, consumers don't even realize they've been duped into buying real fur," said Leppert.

      Of the two jackets falsely labeled "trim: polyester," one is a size-four girl's jacket bought in the children's section of Neiman Marcus. Test results reveal that the coat actually contains raccoon dog fur, the group said.

      Not the first time

      Last winter, of 25 fur-trimmed jackets tested by The HSUS, the group says every single one was falsely advertised, falsely labeled, unlabeled or had a combination of these problems. Twenty were identified by laboratory testing as raccoon dog and three as domestic dog.

      Raccoon dogs and domestic dogs are both raised for their fur in Chinaa country HSUS says has no functioning animal welfare laws, and where investigators have documented animals being skinned alive for their fur. Like many other species, rabbits raised for their fur spend their entire lives in tiny wire cages. Much of the worlds fur is processed in China, where environmental problems associated with the industry are receiving scrutiny.

      In the Congress, Representatives Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Mike Ferguson (R-N.J.) have introduced the Dog and Cat Fur Prohibition Enforcement Act, that would require labeling of all fur garments, regardless of value. The legislation also prohibits the sale of raccoon dog fur. The bill has more than 150 co-sponsors in the House, and a Senate version is expected to be introduced soon.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      The group says the mislabeled fur garments are being sold at six major retailers: Bloomingdale's, Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor, Dillard's, Saks Fifth Avenu...
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      Bombardier Recalls Ski-Doo Snowmobiles

      December 19, 2007
      Bombardier Recreational Products is recalling nearly 500 Ski-Doo model year 2008 MXZ X 600 RS snowmobiles.

      A defect in the carburetor can prevent the throttle from freely returning to the idle position. This can result in an unexpected loss of control leading to a collision and cause serious injuries or death.

      The firm has received three reports of snowmobiles with stuck throttles. No injuries reported.

      The recall involves Ski-Doo model year 2008 MXZ X 600 RS snowmobiles. The model name is located on the side panels. The snowmobiles were sold in yellow or black/slate.

      The units were sold by Ski-Doo dealers nationwide during November 2007 for about $9,500. They were made in Canada.

      Consumers should stop using these vehicles immediately and contact any Ski-Doo dealer to schedule a free repair. Consumers with recalled snowmobiles are being sent direct notices from Bombardier.

      Consumer Contact: For more information, call Bombardier Recreational Products toll-free at (888) 638-5397 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's Web site at

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

      Bombardier Recalls Ski-Doo Snowmobiles...
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      Nevada Leads In Foreclosures and Rescue Scams

      Beware of strangers offering help with mortgage lenders

      With Nevada leading the nation in the rate of foreclosures, that states attorney general is cautioning consumers about an alarming incrase in foreclosure rescue scams.

      Catherine Cortez Masto said that in nearly every case, these scam operations will promise to intercede with the homeowners lender to stave off foreclosure, but will require consumers to sign contracts which involve turning ownership of a home over to the foreclosure relief company.

      The scammer then promises to lease the home back to the consumer with a buyback option at some future date. These plans never work, and consumers will lose their homes to the foreclosure rescue company.

      Unfortunately, home foreclosures are on the rise in Nevada and that has given scam artists fertile ground for cheating those desperate to keep their homes, Masto said. If you are facing foreclosure, I encourage you to talk with your mortgage lender before accepting help from an outside party.

      Nevada led the nation in foreclosures for the 11th month in a row, with one filing for every 152 househilds. Florida was second with one out of 282 homes and Ohio was third with one out of every 307 homes.

      Mail solicitation

      In one scam known to be operating in Nevada, Masto says the perpetrator solicits victims directly through the mail with promises to help a homeowner from foreclosure by saving their credit and negotiating directly with their lender.

      The perpetrator will offer to buy the house for the total amount owing on the house, plus some small amount of cash. The perpetrator will require the victim to sign a deed, a transfer tax form, and a contract of sale.

      The deed provides that the seller (the victim) is selling the house to a corporation. The perpetrator pays the cash to the victim and assures him he will take care of paying off any mortgages on the home.

      After the victim moves out of the house, the perpetrator rents the house, does not pay the mortgages, and the house goes into foreclosure. The perpetrator can continue to collect rent until the foreclosure process is completed. The victim collects none of the rent, and, once foreclosure is completed, the renters are evicted.

      What to do

      Homeowners in distress must talk directly to their lender and not rely on a third party, Masto said. It's also important to make contact as early in the process as possible.

      Assistance is also available from licensed credit counselors, government agencies, and legal services. But by all means, said Masto, seek advice from qualified professionals who do not have a personal interest in your decision.

      More about avoiding foreclosure ...

      Nevada Leads In Foreclosures and Rescue Scams...
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      Foreclosures Up 68 Percent In November

      Another surge in defaults expected early next year

      The number of U.S. homes going into foreclosure totaled nearly 202,000 in November, a 68 percent rise year over year, but down slightly from the previous month.

      In its monthly report, the real estate tracking firm RealtyTrac, Inc., said foreclosure activity likely peaked for the year in August.

      This could indicate that foreclosure activity has topped out for the year, but the true test of whether this ceiling will hold will come at the beginning of next year -- when we anticipate that a seasonal surge in foreclosure filings and another possible wave of resetting mortgages could place further pressure on the housing market, said RealtyTrac CEO James J. Saccacio.

      The report shows a total of 201,950 foreclosure filings, which can include everything from default notices to actual bank repossessions. That number is 10 percent lower than Octobers total, but amounts to a national foreclosure filing rate of one for every 617 households.

      Foreclosure activity remains concentrated in a handful of states. Nevada led the nation for the 11th month in a row, with one filing for every 152 househilds. Florida was second with one out of 282 homes and Ohio was third with one out of every 307 homes.

      California had the highest number of foreclosure notices, at 39,992. In terms of Metro areas, Stockton, California led the nation with the highest foreclosure rate, recording a staggering one out of every 99 households heading into foreclosure.

      While Saccacio says foreclosure activity appears to have leveled off for 2007, he says it could start back up again in 2008.

      The reason?

      Homes sold with subprime mortgages during the still-red hot real estate market of 2006 will begin to reset to higher interest rates. When that happens, monthly payments often go up by as much as several hundred dollars a month.

      Foreclosures Up 68 Percent In November...
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      Beware of Lead in Holiday Decorations

      Christmas lights sold at Target, Wal-Mart may contain lead

      Consumers aren't just worried about lead in their children's toys -- and their pets toys -- this holiday season. They're also worried about lead in their C..

      Chronic Sinus Problems Require Treatment

      JAMA study got it wrong and patients could be the losers

      Antibiotics and nose spray don't work, simply do not apply to anyone with chronic problems. In fact, antibiotics and sprays help most folks with chronic si..

      Sara Lee Accused of Whole Grain Whitewash

      'Soft & Smooth' white bread isn't whole grain, group charges

      On several Sara Lee web sites, the company muses about how consumers are likely to mistakenly believe that many whole grain breads are actually more like whole-wheat bread than white bread, and chides its competitors for not being 100-percent whole-grain.

      Yet Sara Lee helps foster that confusion by marketing a Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White Bread and falsely claiming that it is as nutritious as whole wheat bread, says the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

      CSPI has served the company with formal notice that it will file suit against the company if the misleading claims continue.

      Sara Lee claims that its Whole Grain White Bread has the taste and texture of white bread with the goodness of whole grain, and whole grain goodness with all the mouthwatering pleasure of scrumptious, soft, white bread.

      By claiming an exciting innovation in white bread, the repeated whole grain goodness claims are particularly misleading because some new breads are in fact, made with a white whole-wheat flour that is, in fact, whole wheat. One version of a label for the Sara Lee product at issue made the patently false statement that Sara Lee Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White [bread] = 100% Whole Wheat.

      This whole grain bread is mostly refined white flour, the kind of flour that health authorities recommend Americans eat less of, said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. Sara Lee is attempting to put a whole grain halo on a bread that is not whole wheat. I call that a whole grain whitewash.

      On, a web site operated by Sara Lee, a press release for a genuinely 100 percent whole wheat Sara Lee bread regretfully ruminates that seven out of 10 consumers mistakenly believe their wheat bread is 100% whole wheat, and that 50 percent of traditional wheat bread consumers mistakenly believe their bread is the best nutritional choice.

      Another Sara Lee site,, lets consumers test breads by Arnold, Natures Own, Pepperidge Farm, on a Whole-Grain-o-Meter to see if the product is 100 percent whole grain or not. While the meter rates several Sara Lee breads, its Whole Grain White Bread is absent.

      A pledge form on that site gives the impression that switching to a Soft and Smooth whole grain bread is an act of nutritional virtue. But in fact, only 30 percent of the grain in Sara Lees Soft and Smooth Whole Grain White Bread is whole grain, and the rest is refined white flour, according to news reports. In fact, there is more water in this product than whole grain.

      It would be more accurate to say that this Sara Lee product is brimming with the wholesome goodness of white flour and water, said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner. The intent is to confuse consumers, who are denied the nutrition they think they are paying for. Its hard to see how a judge or jury would let a company get away with such an obvious fraud.

      CSPIs notification to Sara Lee says it wants the company to stop the misleading whole grain claims and to donate to charity the profits it has received from Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White Bread that it has earned since its introduction in 2005.

      Sara Lee has 30 days to respond to CSPIs settlement offer.

      Sara Lee Accused of Whole Grain Whitewash...
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      FCC Votes To Relax Media Ownership Rules

      Congressional opposition likely; White House supports measure

      Despite staunch opposition from Congress and media watchdog groups, the FCC voted 3-2 to relax its rules against businesses consolidating ownership of media outlets in a given region.

      Under the new rules, broadcasters in the nation's 20 largest media markets can now also purchase newspapers for their business, not that there has been any great rush to snap up moribund print properties, with the obvious exceptions of Dow Jones and the Tribune Company.

      The 3-2 vote was strictly along party lines, with FCC Chair Kevin Martin and commissioners Robert McDowell and Deborah Tate, all Republicans, supporting the rule change. Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, both Democrats, opposed it.

      Critics of the vote say it will open the door to more corporate buyouts of local media and decrease quality local journalism. The Free Press media coalition blasted the decision, with executive director Josh Silver saying that FCC chair Kevin Martin was "ignoring the public will and defying the U.S. Senate."

      "[Martin's] decision to gut longstanding ownership rules shows once again how the largest media companies with their campaign contributions and high-powered lobbyists are corrupting the policymaking process at the expense of local news coverage and independent voices," said Silver.

      Martin's push to pass the new rule also faces opposition in Congress. Prior to the vote, 25 senators from both parties wrote Martin to demand he slow down the vote and give the public more time to comment on the issue, as is customary with most proposed government regulations.

      The letter, signed by Commerce Committee chairman Daniel Inouye and all four Senate Democrats running for President -- Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden -- as well as Republicans Ted Stevens and Olympia Snowe, said that Martin "shortchanged the comment have not completed a full review of localism prior to forcing a vote on a rule change dealing with media ownership limits."

      "When you proposed a new rule on the effects of communications towers on migratory birds, you allowed for a 90 day comment period," the Senators wrote. "How could you decide to allow 90 days for a migratory bird rule and then shortchange the public on the media ownership rule?"

      Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who signed the letter, said prior to the vote that Martin's decision would have "consequences." Congress is certainly not afraid to take action against the FCC, said Cantwell. "In the Senate, were going to make sure that if we have to pass legislation stopping the FCC, we will.

      Friends in high places

      Martin, however, has the backing of the White House to pursue the media consolidation changes. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez wrote Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid prior to the vote, warning him that the Bush administration would fight any "attempt to delay or overturn these revised rules by legislative means."

      Martin, a former Bush campaign operative whose wife Cathie has worked for both Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney, has aggressively pursued a conservative, free-market agenda since succeeding Michael Powell to become FCC chair in 2005.

      Martin oversaw the mega-merger of BellSouth and AT&T, creating -- once again -- the world's largest telecommunications company. Martin has also opposed legislation protecting the right of "net neutrality," enabling small Internet publishers equal access to the network.

      Martin has been a friend indeed to the telecommunications industry, supporting video franchising rules that enable Verizon and AT&T to roll out high-speed service to communities without complying with local or state franchising regulations -- regulations that cable companies still have to abide by.

      But Martin's generally hands-off attitude towards market issues comes to an end with the cable industry. Martin has continually pushed for greater regulation of cable companies and diversification of cable subscriptions in given areas, as well offering of "a la carte" channel packages that enable subscribers to only buy channels they want.

      Many critics see the "a la carte" move as a back-door attempt to starve out cable channels that present adult-oriented content.

      Martin recently introduced a proposal to reinstate a cap on cable companies owning more than 30 percent of the national market, a move that was supported by consumer groups and bitterly opposed by the cable industry -- and expected to be voted on at today's meeting.

      Change in the weather

      Martin's rush to push the media consolidation relaxation waiver may be due to several large media deals that would run into problems without it, such as Rupert Murdoch's buyout of the Dow Jones corporation and Sam Zell's desire to purchase the Tribune publishing company, though Martin has granted both deals waivers to continue.

      The rush may also be attributed to Martin's tenure as FCC chair coming to an end. With a presidential election looming and the possibility of a Democrat taking the White House and the Democrats strengthening control of Congress, industry insiders speculate that Martin may be ensuring both the goals of the Bush administration and his own future political or lobbying ambitions.

      Former FCC commissioners usually wind up practicing communications law on Washington's K St., offering advice and counsel to the media conglomerates they tenderly regulated during their time in office. Thus, one's actions today can lay up rewards in the next life, i.e., the private sector.

      FCC Votes To Relax Media Ownership Rules...
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      Video Professor Drops Subpoena, Goes After Wikipedia Users

      Comcast protects its customers, Wikipedia surrenders

      Video Professor, Inc. has dropped its subpoena asking for the names of 100 John Does who anonymously posted their gripes about the computer lessons but still has an active lawsuit against defamatory anonymous poster s and is now trying to unmask the identities of Wikipedia posters.

      Video Professor (VPI), which hawks its computer lessons on light-night TV, dropped a similar subpoena against but is still has an active vague lawsuit against anonymous Internet posters, said Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with nonprofit consumer rights organization Public Citizen, Public Citizen provided legal assistance to in its fight to keep its posters anonymous.

      The lawsuit doesn't name anyone in particular and Levy said it's possible that VPI is using the outstanding lawsuit to go after other websites. There are at least seven websites, including, that post the complaints of VPI customers.

      Most of the complaints are in regard to the company's implied-consent automatic-renewal business model, which hooks customers with the promise of one free disc and then starts charging them $79.95 per month. Many customers say they weren't told about the renewal process while others say it's difficult to cancel.

      I ordered a free lesson through an 'introductory offer' in which I only had to pay $6.95 for shipping, Jacquelyn of Honolulu, Hawaii, wrote in a complaint to

      A few weeks later, I received a second lesson (without placing an order) and my credit card was charged $77.95. A week later, my card was charged for another $5.95; the next day it was charged for $2 and the following day, another charge appeared for $1.

      I returned the second lesson and wrote a note asking Video Professor to stop sending lessons, Jacquelyn continued. Although I did not receive any further CDs, my card was charged twice more for $77.95, as well as multiple charges of $5.95 and $1.

      Complaints fabricated?

      The company's founder, CEO and TV frontman, John Scherer, told in an interview in early December that he believed the complaints on were fabricated by either the website's operator or VPI's competitors and that he has no intention of suing his customers.

      We have never sued a customer and we never will sue a customer, Scherer said.

      Scherer said if any of the complaints are true, he would reimburse his unhappy customers.

      If he wants to help them why doesn't he post something that says, 'Hey, I want to help you, I don't want to sue you. Come tell me what we've done wrong and we'll refund your money.' And that ought to be sufficient but obviously he does want to sue them, Levy said in December.

      Scherer has now focused his efforts on a single Wikipedia poster. Wikipedia, without much of a fight, handed Scherer the IP addresses of posters who supposedly wrote defamatory comments about VPI and now Scherer has taken one of those addresses and subpoenaed Comcast on December 12 for identifying information relating to the most flagrantly defamatory anonymous poster on Wikipedia, according to court documents.

      Comcast has no intention of giving up the poster's identity because under terms of the Cable Act, a cable company can only reveal a customer's identity from a court order, not a subpoena, Charlie Douglas, Comcast representative said.

      Comcast holds customer privacy in the highest regard, Douglas wrote in an e-mail. Comcast will only provide customer information in private civil cases pursuant to a valid court order and only if Comcast's records contain information sufficient to identify the customer account on the date(s) listed in the court order. Comcast will also provide notice to its customers who are the subject of any such court orders.

      Wikipedia wimps out

      It's unclear why Wikipedia forfeited the IP addresses. A Wikipedia spokesman returned's call but did not have the information requested. The individual with specific information regarding the subpoena did not return a phone call and e-mail.

      Comments posted by unregistered users on Wikipedia display the user's IP address. Comments posted by registered users display the user's chosen user name.

      On the Wikipedia discussion page for Video Professor there are appear to be a handful of registered users who try to include potentially negative information in the posting and one person, named Skporganic who keeps trying to delete those negative comments.

      At one point Skporganic added this to the VPI Wikipedia page: Video Professor is known for its enthusiastic customer service employees, and the customer service department is known as the liveliest place to work at Video Professor headquarters. ... The department is heavily adorned with motivating signs featuring catchy slogans such as 'Ya Gotta Wanna,' festive balloons and colorful banners, all designed to create a supportive, positive working environment. The department is filled with row after row of customer service agents in cubes speaking enthusiastically with customers."

      Despite the Wikipedia subpoena and the continuing lawsuit, Levy declared the dropped subpoena a success with a few loose ends. He said the next step is to get VPI to drop the lawsuit.

      VPI representatives did not return two phone calls and an e-mail.

      Video Professor Drops Subpoena, Goes After Wikipedia Users...
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      Lead Poisoning Hazard in Sesame Street Toy Medical Kits

      Illinois tests once again find high lead levels in Fisher-Price toys

      December 17, 2007
      On the heels of her Dec. 3 announcement about red blood pressure cuffs found in Fisher-Price toy medical kits, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is warning consumers of a similar toy that presents a potential lead poisoning hazard the green blood pressure cuff found in Sesame Street Giggle Fisher-Price toy medical kits.

      Madigan urges parents to take the green blood pressure cuff toys away from their children immediately.

      The toy kits are sold at retail stores nationwide, but Fisher Price has notified retailers to pull the product from store shelves only in Illinois, Madigan's office said.

      Fisher-Price discovered that some of the green blood pressure cuffs from the Sesame Street medical kits contain more than 600 parts per million total lead in violation of Illinois law and immediately reported this finding to Madigan's office.

      Fisher-Price has agreed to remove the toy medical kits from Illinois store shelves and offer a replacement part for families who already possess the toy. Consumers who wish to obtain a replacement blood pressure cuff can do so by contacting Fisher-Price at 800-298-0638 . Only the green blood pressure cuffs found in the Sesame Street Giggle Fisher-Price toy medical kits are affected by this alert.

      I am pleased that Fisher-Price took the initiative to test its products, self-report a violation, quickly remove the affected blood pressure cuffs from store shelves, and offer replacements to consumers, Madigan said. I continue to urge manufacturers and retailers to review and tighten up their quality control procedures so consumers can be confident that the items on store shelves are safe for their children.

      Madigan's office enforces the Illinois Lead Poisoning Prevention Act, which prohibits the sale of toys, clothing, jewelry or any other product intended for use by children that contains lead in excess of 600 parts per million. This law is among the strongest lead laws in the country.

      Madigan stressed that there are millions of individual items already in children's homes and places they visit, such as grandparents' homes and daycare centers, that may pose a threat to children's safety.

      Madigan has initiated a recall hotline at 1-888-414-7678 to help callers identify recalled products in their homes and explain how to contact companies to repair or return affected products. The hotline has received more than 500 calls in its first two months of operation and has been successful in providing information to consumers, especially those without access to the Internet. Consumers are also encouraged to sign up for e-mail alerts about the latest government recalls at

      Current recalls and archived recall notices are also available in's Recall Section.

      Lead Poisoning Hazard in Sesame Street Toy Medical Kits...
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      Sprint Removes Three Fees, Adds Two New Ones

      Company claims new charges will "defray costs"

      Sprint customers got a little surprise in their holiday stocking this week. The company announced it was removing three of the extra fees it bills to customers from their monthly charges, including fees assessed for 911 service, number portability, and costs of compliance with federal programs.

      However, the company also sent along a lump of coal by offering two new fees -- an "administrative charge" of 75 cents monthly, and a "regulatory charge" of 25 cents.

      According to Sprint, the administrative charge will "help defray various costs imposed on us by other telecommunications carriers" while the regulatory charge is "being assessed to help defray costs of various federal, state and local regulatory programs."

      These charges are not taxes and are not amounts we are required to collect from you," the carrier said.

      While customers may receive a minuscule savings from the new fees, what are they and why, if the company isn't required to charge them, does it do so?

      The mysterious fees, or "unfees" as disgruntled customers call them, are basically thinly disguised price increases or, to put it a little more generously, ways to pass on increased business costs to consumers. It's a common, if unpopular, practice and is not limited to the wireless industry, though wireless carriers are certainly fond of it.

      When Verizon won temporary relief from paying into the Universal Service Fund (USF), rather than pass on the savings to customers, it promptly replaced the USF fee with a new fee that almost exactly mirrored the USF fee.

      BellSouth tried to do the same but both telecoms backed down after Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair Kevin Martin threatened an investigation for violating the agency's "Truth In Billing" requirements for customer service charges.

      Congress attempted to gain some relief for consumers when Senators Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) introduced the "Cell Phone Consumer Protection Act of 2007," which would ban the charging of any extra fees beyond what government regulations mandate, and require wireless carriers to spell out fees in clear, comprehensible language.

      But the bill has languished since its introduction, with no sign of forward motion before Congress adjourns for the holidays.

      Sprint, meanwhile, bowed to consumer pressure and competition from its larger rivals AT&T and Verizon Wireless when it recently announced that it would prorate its contract cancellation fees and not charge customers who want to change plans by locking them into new contracts.

      But the "unfees" continue to frustrate those who want to pay a flat, fair price for the services they get. As one commenter at Broadband Reports put it, "If I go to a grocery store to buy something, I see the price that is charged, and I pay a sales tax ... If I wanted, I could look at other stores carrying similar items, and comparison shop based on price, knowing that another store isn't showing an artificially low price that includes an 'unfee.' "

      Sprint customers got a little surprise in their holiday stocking. The company announced it was removing 3 of the extra fees it bills to customers from thei...
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      Senate Passes Home Loan Reform Bill

      Legislation would help borrowers refinance into government loans

      The Senate has voted overwhelmingly to support legislation that would enable homeowners trapped by adjustable-rate mortgages or loans with subprime terms to refinance into new loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).T

      he Senate voted 93-1 to support lowering the down payments for FHA-backed loans from 3 percent to 1.5 percent. The legislation would also raise the limit on mortgages that could be backed by the FHA, from $362,000 to $417,000.

      The loan limit raises were designed to target beleaguered borrowers in states with high real estate prices, such as California and New York, where "jumbo" mortgages beyond FHA limits comprise large parts of the faltering housing market.

      "It was past time to approve a proposal like this that can help a good number of Americans save their homes," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY). "This is a good first step in the larger effort to bring relief to distressed homeowners trapped in the mortgage mess."

      FHA loans have been a traditional staple for first-time homebuyers since their creation in 1934, but fell out of favor with the advent of the subprime lending industry, that promised flexible lower payments and little or no money down for their products.

      But with the subprime mortgage industry now moribund due to massive defaults on loans and slowing home sales, FHA loans have come back into vogue, leading to the push to modernize their terms in order for more borrowers to qualify.

      The Senate bill must be reconciled with a similar bill in the House of Representatives which offers higher loan limits for FHA-backed mortgages, and more flexible payment terms for borrowers.

      The Bush administration has voiced support for raising the FHA loan limits, but it opposes the limits set in the House bill.

      The Senate bill was sponsored by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT), who has also introduced legislation designed to combat predatory lending abuses and reform bankruptcy rules that would enable homeowners declaring bankruptcy to protect their homes.

      Bush plan

      The Bush adminstration is supporting a plan championed by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson that would enable homeowners trapped by rising mortgage payments or bad loan terms to qualify for a "loan freeze" from their lender for five years.

      The plan relies on voluntary cooperation from the financial and lending industries, and has been characterized as a "bailout" by Wall Street, while consumer advocates criticized the plan for not doing enough to help homeowners already falling behind on their mortgage payments.

      Industry insiders say that the Bush plan's chief objective is to scuttle legislative attempts for stronger measures for homeowner protection, including the bankruptcy reform bills but Wall Street opposes the measure because it could affect the earnings of wealthy investors.

      Senate Passes Home Loan Reform Bill...
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      Toyota Tundra Pickups Recalled

      Toyota Motor U.S.A. is recalling 15,600 2007 Toyota Tundra pickups because a transmission part could fail.

      Toyota said the rear propeller shaft on four-wheel-drive Tundras could separate at a joint.

      Toyota discovered the flaw after a consumer complained of abnormal noises coming from the shaft.

      No accidents or injuries have been reported because of the faulty shaft.

      Owners of the recalled Tundras will receive notification in the mail later this month, Toyota said in a statement.

      The recall is not related to the previously reported rumbling sound coming from the Tundra torque converter after failing to change gears. That problem has not resulted in a recall but has prompted Toyota to replace entire transmissions.

      Toyota also replaced some Tundra engines this year because of faulty camshafts.

      Toyota projects 200,000 sales of the redesigned full-sized trucks this year.

      Toyota Tundra Pickups Recalled...
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      Car Warranty Scams Target Seniors

      High-pressure tactics used to sign up unwary seniors

      You pick up the mail and theres a postcard warning your cars warranty is about to expire. It urges you to call a toll-free number to renew it. But be careful these warnings are often just a clever scam.

      These offers target seniors and other car owners with post cards and phone calls that sound urgent, said North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, whose office is investigating the post cards and calls. They want to pressure you into buying an expensive car warranty. Dont let a high-pressure sales pitch talk you into something you dont want or need.

      In the past month, Coopers office has averaged around thirty calls a week from consumers whove received these post cards in the mail or calls on the phone urging them to renew their car warranties before they expire.

      Since May, a total of 25 North Carolina consumers have filed written complaints with Coopers Consumer Protection Division about the pitches. Many of these consumers got pre-recorded phone messages, mailings, or both asking them to purchase an extended warranty. The solicitations have especially targeted seniors.

      The post cards and phone messages include phrases like motor vehicle notification, final notice or priority level: high in large letters to make the offer seem urgent.

      When consumers who receive one of the phone messages or post cards respond by calling the number listed, they are pressured to buy an expensive extended warranty for their car.

      Callers are told they must make a down payment before they can get information about the warranty. Cooper offered consumers the following tips:

      • Beware of mailings that appear to come from your automobile manufacturer offering extended warrantycoverage.

      • Beware of pre-recorded phone calls. In North Carolina, its illegal for telemarketers to use pre-recorded messages unless a live person first asks you if you want to listen to the recording.

      • Never give out personal financial information like your bank account number or Social Security Number over the phone.

      • Check to see if you already have a car warranty, or if your warranty has already expired. Many of the consumers whove gotten these offers say their car warranties expired long ago.

      • When considering an extended warranty, always get information in writing before you agree to sign up or pay any money.

      • Check out a business with your state Attorney Generals Office and your local Better Business Bureau before you agree to do business with them.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      They want to pressure you into buying an expensive car warranty. Dont let a high-pressure sales pitch talk you into something you dont want or need....
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      Study: Shingles Virus Common among Healthy Adults

      More adults should get shingles vaccine, researchers conclude

      When a vaccine to prevent shingles was approved for use in 2006, the Food and Drug Administration recommended the vaccine for people age 60 and older who previously had chickenpox.

      But two issues -- the vaccine's cost and the perception that shingles primarily affects adults with weakened immune systems -- have left some physicians undecided about whether healthy adults need the vaccine.

      This uncertainty prompted a group of researchers led by Barbara Yawn, M.D., of Olmsted Medical Center in Rochester, to gather new data about the incidence and impact of shingles in unvaccinated patients.

      Published in the November issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Dr. Yawn's research findings suggest that shingles and the complications associated with it may have a greater impact upon healthy adults than most physicians previously assumed.

      "The best way to make a decision about who we should vaccinate is by gaining a better understanding about the true impact of this virus," notes Dr. Yawn. "Physicians have access to very few recent studies that tell us how many people in the United States get shingles, what age groups the virus affects most, and how many of these people go on to develop related complications or other problems."

      Shingles isn't a life-threatening condition, but it can cause a painful rash or band of blisters during an outbreak and other painful complications that can persist for months or even years.

      The goal of this study was to establish accurate, up-to-date data about the incidence and impact of shingles in the United States before the vaccine was introduced. Dr. Yawn and her team recorded the number of adult residents of Olmsted County, Minn., who were diagnosed with shingles and shingles-related complications from Jan. 1, 1996, to Dec. 31, 2001. Over the course of the study, 1,669 patients were included.

      Researchers calculated that shingles affects at least 1 in every 278 adults in the United States each year. Study data also showed that shingles is even more common among people ages 50 to 59, affecting about one in every 24 people each year.

      "Overall, our data suggests that researchers and physicians also need to consider preventing shingles in people ages 50 to 59," says Dr. Yawn. "Future research is needed to understand the risk of recurrence of shingles to better advise people who previously had shingles about the value of receiving the shingles vaccine."

      Dr. Yawn noted that study data also challenged the assumption that shingles primarily affects adults with weakened immune systems.

      "More than 92 percent of the study subjects with shingles did not have any conditions like cancer or other serious illnesses that affected their immune system," says Dr. Yawn.

      Post-herpetic neuralgia was the most common complication noted, occurring in about 8 percent of all people and increasing with age. This sometimes debilitating complication causes the skin to remain painful and sensitive to touch for months or even years after the rash clears up.

      "About 18 percent of people age 80 or older experience pain that lasts more than 90 days beyond the shingles," explains Dr. Yawn.

      When a vaccine to prevent shingles was approved for use in 2006, the Food and Drug Administration recommended the vaccine for people age 60 and older....
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      Student Loan Company Agrees to End Kickbacks to NCAA Division I Schools

      Code of Conduct Aims to Prevent False, Misleading Direct Marketing of Student Loans

      New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo has reached a settlement with a student loan consolidation company specializing in the direct marketing of student loans -- the first such settlement in this growing segment of the student lending industry.

      A four-month investigation found that Clearwater, Florida-based Student Financial Services Inc. (SFS), which also operates under the banner of University Financial Services (UFS), had agreed to pay some of the nations top universities, school athletic departments, and sports marketing firms for generating loan applications, in a kickback scheme euphemistically known as revenue sharing.

      The company had contracts at 63 colleges nationwide, 57 of which are National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I schools.

      Under these agreements, the company also paid for the rights to use school names, team names, colors, mascots, and logos to advertise their loans directly to students. This practice, known as co-branding, was intended to imply that the company was the official lender of the school, or that it was actually a part of the school. Schools, athletic departments, and sports marketing firms made these agreements without evaluating the quality of the loans.

      When lenders use deceptive techniques to advertise their loans, they are playing a dangerous game with a students future, said Cuomo. Student loan companies incorporate school insignia and colors into advertisements because they know students are more likely to trust a lender if its loan appears to be approved by their college.

      "We cannot allow lenders to exploit this trust with deceptive, co-branded marketing. A student loan is a very serious financial commitment, and choosing the wrong loan can lead to devastating consequences, he said.

      Under the settlement, which was joined by Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, SFS has agreed to:

      • End all lending-related agreements at a total of sixty-three schools including Georgetown University, Wake Forest University, University of Kansas, Central Michigan University, St. Johns University, University of Washington, University of Oregon, University of Texas El Paso, Rutgers University, Georgia Tech, Florida State University, Florida Atlantic University, the University of Central Florida, and the University of Pittsburgh. SFS has until December 31, 2007 to comply;

      • End all lending-related agreements with five sports marketing companies that, in some instances, were sold the right to market the schools insignia, colors, and mascot, and in turn signed an agreement with SFS. These companies are ESPN Regional Television, Inc., International Sports Properties, Inc., Host Communications, Nelligan Sports Marketing, Inc., and Learfield Communications, Inc. SFS has until December 31, 2007, to comply;

      • Launch a print advertising campaign at 63 schools alerting students through their top-circulating newspapers that they must protect themselves when shopping for a loan;

      • End the practice of cash-based inducements, including paying students up to $50 to refer their peers to the company and encouraging students to apply for SFS loans by creating contests where they could win up to $1,000.

      Also under the settlement, SFS has agreed to adopt a new Code of Conduct that prevents false and misleading direct loan marketing to students. The Code expressly prohibits lenders and marketers from buying rights to a college or universitys name, team name, colors, logo, and mascot for loan marketing purposes.

      It also requires lenders and marketers to provide important disclosures to students in connection with loan transactions and prohibits a variety of misleading and deceptive practices identified by the investigation of the industry.

      Student Loan Company Agrees to End Kickbacks to NCAA Division I Schools...
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      Winter Months Increase Radon Danger

      Odorless gas is second-leading cause of lung cancer

      The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that about 200 people die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning associated with home fuel-burning ..

      Top Ten Scams of 2007

      Old reliables and nervy newcomers fleece rich and poor alike

      The Federal Trade Commission tells us that scams hit 30.2 million adults -- 13.5 percent of the adult population -- during the last year for which it has a..

      Noisy Toys Can Be Dangerous Too

      Electronic gadgets can quickly damage young ears

      December 10, 2007 
      With all the emphasis on lead paint in recalled toys, health advocates say another, very real threat is being overlooked.

      The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association warns that many popular toys can negatively affect hearing.

      When the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) released a list of unsafe toys last month, the ASHA says hearing damage from noisy toys or electronic devices was missing from the list. Yet electronics are one of the fastest-growing segments of the toy market, and are being marketed to younger and younger children.

      It is up to adults to safeguard our children and protect them from dangers that we can easily avoid, including lead, choke hazards and hearing damage from loud toys or playing videogames and music too loud, too long, said Noma Anderson, Ph.D. president of ASHA.

      Loud toys and personal listening technologies that arent used safely pose a threat to ears of all ages. Once damaged, ears do not heal. For children, hearing loss can also lead to other problems, including difficulties in academic and social development.

      As younger and younger children are asking for and receiving electronic toys and music devices like MP3s and iPods, it is critical that parents learn how to protect their childrens hearing and teach them safe listening habits.

      The group offers these simple guidelines:

      • If you must raise your voice to be heard, it is loud enough to damage hearing.

      • When evaluating toys for small children, bear in mind that their arms are short and they tend to hold toys close to their face, making noises even louder.

      • If you can hear music from someone elses earphones three feet away, its too loud.

      • Give your ears a break from continuous listening.

      • Upgrade headphones so that they isolate music from background noise. Lower volumes can then be used.

      • Set volume limiters before allowing children to use electronic items.

      • is a fun website created by hearing experts and educators with video games for kids, and information for teachers, parents and reporters to learn about hearing safety. The site is also available in Spanish.

      A lawsuit filed last year against Apple claims its iPods are too loud and could damage users' hearing.

      Lawyers for John Kiel Patterson charge the mp3 players are "inherently defective" in design and do not provide sufficient warning to consumers that the volume could result in hearing loss. The suit says the iPod can produce sounds at more than 115 decibels, which it says can damage hearing if exposed to as little as a half minute per day.

      Noisy Toys Can Be Dangerous Too...
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      Consumer Reports Snubs Toyota Highlander

      Magazine withholds its coveted "Recommended" designation

      The 2008 Toyota Highlander led the Consumer Reports list of top mid-size, three-row SUVs but the magazine withheld its automatic "Recommended" designation.

      The new Highlander is the first vehicle to be hit by the magazines October 16 decision to not automatically award the Recommended designation to Toyota vehicles because of reliability issues with the automaker.

      Nevertheless, the 2008 Highlander scored better than 13 competing mid-size, three-row SUVs to take the segments top spot in the magazines January ratings.

      The Highlander was not officially recommended because we recommend only models with sufficient data to predict average or better reliability, according to David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports Auto Test Center.

      If Toyota vehicles return to levels of sustained reliability Consumer Reports considers to be excellent, the magazine will resume automatic recommendations, according to a press release.

      Other vehicles tested in the January issue were the Buick Enclave, Ford Taurus X and Subaru Tribeca, whose ratings along with the Highlander were added to the magazines existing rankings of 10 other midsize, three-row SUVs.

      The Tribeca and Taurus X received a Recommended designation from Consumer Reports.

      Toyota toppled

      In October, Toyota Motor Co. was dropped from the top spot in Consumer Reports vehicle reliability survey.

      Honda Motor Co. beat out Toyota for first place but the maker of the top selling Prius hybrid managed a third place finish behind Honda and Suburu.

      Ford Motor Co. made great strides forward, according to the consumer advocacy group with 41 of Ford's 44 models scoring average or better in predicted reliability.

      Three Toyota vehicles lost the magazine's "buy" recommendation. For the first time in the survey's history, the V6 Toyota Camry is not recommended by the publication. The Lexus GS sedan and the full-sized Tundra pickup also dropped off the recommended list.

      Japanese-made vehicles dominate CR's most-reliable list but U.S. automakers are making some progress, according to David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports' Auto Test Center.

      "Just because a vehicle is made in Japan, doesn't mean it has bullet-proof quality," Champion said.

      Both General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC achieved high ratings in launches of new vehicles but were unable to maintain the ratings.

      Consumer Reports said The Ford Fusion/Mercury Milan sedans rank among the most reliable family cars in its survey, along with the Toyota Prius and Honda Accord. Those Ford sedans and the two-wheel drive Ford F-150 V-6 comprise three of the four domestic models on the survey's most reliable list.

      Buick was the top U.S. nameplate at number 10 while Mercury followed in the number 11 spot, Ford was 13 and Lincoln 14.

      Consumer Reports Snubs Toyota Highlander...
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      Bush, Paulson Unveil Mortgage Rescue Plan

      Qualified borrowers could get five-year rate freeze

      President Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson offered a plan today that would supposedly enable as many as 1.2 million homeowners with risky mortgages to stay in their homes.

      Bush and Paulson stopped shy of calling the plan a "bailout," saying that no federal money would be involved, but that federal guidelines would be needed to help the financial industry handle the potentially massive number of loan defaults that may occur as adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) begin to "reset" in 2008.

      "[T]he current system for working out those problem loans would not be sufficient to handle the anticipated 1.8 million owner-occupied subprime mortgage resets that will occur in 2008 and 2009," Paulson said. " Instead, the industry needed a streamlined approach to address this increased volume."

      Under the plan, homeowners with adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) originated between Jan. 1, 2005, and July 31, 2007, not scheduled to reset between Jan. 1, 2008, and July 31, 2010, may be able to qualify for a five-year rate freeze at their present, lower payment rate.

      Only homeowners who live in their homes can qualify for the plan, leaving speculators and those who bought homes to "flip" for a quick profit out in the cold.

      But the plan also penalizes homeowners who are already struggling, as only borrowers who have been making payments regularly would qualify for the rescue. Those who have already fallen too far behind or are in default would not qualify for the plan.

      Also, homeowners who are deemed able to pay their mortgages after the ARM resets would also not qualify.

      Early leaked details about the plan drew lukewarm responses from both the financial sector and consumer advocates, not to mention other politicians.

      New York Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who has offered a mortgage rescue plan of her own, said the Bush/Paulson plan was "going to give struggling homeowners far less than they need."

      "[I]t appears that the president is pushing a freeze for a very narrow group of borrowers," Clinton said. "That is unfortunate because this crisis demands a more comprehensive approach that is adequate for the scale of the problem."

      Clinton supports a five-year rate freeze on ARMs, as well as a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures of owner-occupied homes with subprime adjustable-rate mortgages, and regular reports from the mortgage industry on the number of loans they are modifying.

      Bad Business

      Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal editorial page excoriated the plan as violating the contracts of investors in mortgage-backed securities, who may lose money as a result of the rate freezes.

      "When securitizers purchase loans, the Pooling and Servicing Agreements normally assign servicers a fiduciary duty to maximize cash-flows for the investors," the editors wrote. "In some cases, servicers can modify loan terms if this is consistent with 'standard industry practice.' This plan establishes a new 'standard industry practice.' We trust everyone is prepared to fight that out in court, maybe for years to come, because the lawsuits are going to test that 'standard' practice claim."

      The Bush administration said it was supporting legislation offered by Republican Congressman Mike Castle (R-DE) that would immunize financial institutions that supported the rate freeze from shareholder lawsuits, just as airlines were largely shielded from liability following the 9/11 terror attacks.

      Mortgage Maelstrom

      No matter the preferred solution, consensus seems to be that something needs to be done to stem the mortgage and housing slump, as the bad news just keeps on coming.

      National home values fell 1.3 percent in the third quarter of 2007, the largest drop in 25 years. Excess inventory of unsold homes and uncertainty in the financial markets due to tightening of credit and lending standards contributed to the fall.

      The U.S. Conference of Mayors warned that the subprime mortgage meltdown would have massive economic consequences nationwide, contributing to as much as $1.2 trillion in lost home equity value from foreclosed homes, losses of over 500,000 jobs across metro areas and nearly $6.6 billion in lost tax revenue.

      President Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson offered a plan today that would supposedly enable as many as 1.2 million homeowners with risky mortgage...
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      Minneapolis Jumpin' Jeep Injures Two at Car Wash

      Jeep owners beware: Jeeps and car washes don't mix

      Unintended acceleration with Jeeps at car washes continues to endanger owners, car wash employees and bystanders.

      The most recent report involved Neil in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His 2006 Jeep Grand Cherokee suddenly accelerated out of a Minneapolis car wash damaging four vehicles, totaling one of them and seriously injuring two bystanders.

      Three people were struck by the runaway Jeep.

      One remains paralyzed 18 months after incident. My letter to NHTSA says probably driver error, Neil reported to

      Jumpin' Jeeps have caused near-catastrophes at three Virginia car washes in the last several months as well.

      In Fredericksburg, Bruce drove his 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee through the wash and when the wash was complete he shifted the vehicle to drive and it accelerated on its own to full throttle.

      Bruce told that he stood on the brakes but could not stop the vehicle. I hit a wall behind the car wash and then bounced into a boat that was being dried.

      The boat owner got out of the way and was not hit.

      The local Jeep dealer could not explain nor understand why this happened, Bruce said.

      Other reports of unintended acceleration with Jeeps at Virginia car washes include an incident with a 2003 Jeep Grand Cherokee slamming into a truck in Newport News.

      At a Virginia Beach car wash a 2006 Jeep commander crashed into a brick wall.

      A Chrysler spokesman claims, it's not an issue of sudden acceleration but pedal misapplication" or put another way, simply driver error.

      The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has refused to order a safety recall because the agency found no evidence to indicate the influence of a manufacturing defect. has received reports of unintended acceleration in the Grand Cherokee since at least 2000.

      Minneapolis Jumpin' Jeep Injures Two at Car Wash...
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      Pediatricians Alarmed About Wheeled Shoes

      Kids can roll right into the emergency room

      You see them roll by in schools and malls kids are head over heels for them, but before you buy your kids a pair of wheeled shoes this holiday season, pediatricians have a warning:

      The ultra-popular shoes that seem to give supernatural abilities to kids can be the magic carpet that soars right into the emergency room.

      Its actually becoming a little more commonplace to see bone injuries from children wearing wheeled shoes, says Gregory Sonnen, M.D., pediatrician on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. In fact, Sonnen and his colleagues say they see at least one or two broken bones a month from this latest fad.

      The problem with the wheeled shoes is that parents are buying them as casual footwear, said. Sonnen.

      Many pediatricians are now recommending these shoes are instead treated like a skateboard or rollerblades, not everyday shoe wear.

      When your child is wearing their wheeled-shoes they should also wear their safety equipment as well, Sonnen said. If we look at them as a piece of sporting good equipment I think people will be safer. However, if we look at them as a casual shoe as most people do, I think were going to continue to see a lot of injuries from accidents on wheeled shoes, Sonnen said.

      Head injuries

      According to Sonnen, most kids tend to injure their wrists and elbows when wearing wheeled shoes, but the injuries parents and pediatricians fear most are head injuries.

      Sonnen recommends that helmets should always be worn when wearing wheeled shoes.

      Pediatricians also add that most of the injuries occur during the first week kids wear them so its especially important for parents to make sure they are well protected while theyre learning to walk and roll in them.

      Pediatricians Alarmed About 'Wheeled' Shoes...
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      GE, Kenmore Microwave Combo Wall Ovens Recalled

      December 5, 2007
      General Electric is recalling about 92,000 microwave combo wall ovens. The door switch in the microwave oven can overheat and ignite plastic components in the control area, posing a fire hazard. The lower thermal oven does not pose a hazard.

      GE is aware of 35 incidents of minor property damage and one incident in which a fire damaged adjacent kitchen cabinets. No injuries have been reported.

      The recall includes GE combination microwave and conventional built-in wall ovens sold under the following brand names: GE, GE Profile and Kenmore. The ovens were sold in white, black, bisque and stainless steel. The brand name is printed on the lower left corner on the front of the microwave door. The following model and serial numbers can be found inside the microwave oven on the left interior wall.

      Recalled ModelsSerial number
      begins with:
      GE / GE Profile JKP85B0A3BB, JKP85B0D1BB, JKP85W0A3WW, JKP85W0D1WW,
      JKP86B0F1BB, JKP86C0F1CC, JKP86S0F1SS, JKP86W0F1WW,
      JT965B0F1BB, JT965C0F1CC, JT965S0F1SS, JT965W0F1WW,
      JTP85B0A2BB, JTP85B0A3BB, JTP85B0A4BB, JTP85B0A5BB,
      JTP85B0D1BB, JTP85W0A2WW, JTP85W0A3WW, JTP85W0A4WW,
      JTP85W0A5WW, JTP85W0D1WW, JTP86B0F1BB, JTP86C0F1CC,
      JTP86S0F1SS, JTP86W0F1WW, JTP95B0A2BB, JTP95B0A3BB,
      JTP95B0A4BB, JTP95B0A5BB, JTP95B0D1BB, JTP95W0A2WW,
      JTP95W0A3WW, JTP95W0A4WW, JTP95W0A5WW, JTP95W0D1WW
      AZ, DZ, FZ, GZ, HZ,
      LZ, MZ, RZ, SZ, TZ,
      VZ, ZZ, AA, DA, FA,
      GA, HA, LA, MA, RA,
      SA, TA, VA, ZA, AD,
      DD, FD, GD, HD, LD,
      MD, RD, SD, TD, VD,
      ZD, AF, DF, FF, GF,
      HF, LF, MF, RF, SF,
      TF, VF, ZF
      (All model numbers
      start with 911)
      41485991, 41485992, 41485993, 41485994, 41489991, 41489992,
      41489993, 41489994, 49485992, 49489992, 47692100, 47699100,
      47862100, 47869100, 47812200, 47813200, 47814200, 47819200,
      47792200, 47793200, 47794200, 47799200
      0, 1, 2, 3

      The ovens were sold at department and appliance stores from January 2000 to December 2003 for between $1,500 and $2,000. They were made in the United States.

      Consumers should stop using the microwave oven immediately. Consumers should contact GE regarding their GE/GE Profile micro-oven combo or Sears for their Kenmore unit.

      GE is offering a free repair or rebate on a new product, a $300 rebate toward the purchase of a new GE brand unit, or a $600 rebate toward the purchase of a new GE Profile brand unit. Sears is offering a free repair or $300 rebate toward the purchase of a new Kenmore brand unit. Consumers can continue using the lower thermal oven.

      Consumer Contact: For additional information on GE /Profile units, contact General Electric toll-free at (888)-240-2745 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET Saturday, or visit GE's Web site at For additional information on Kenmore units, contact Sears toll-free at (888) 679-0282 from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET Monday through Saturday, or visit Sears' Web site at

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

      GE, Kenmore Microwave Combo Wall Ovens Recalled...
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      Hannah Montana Fans Skip the Scalpers

      Same-day tickets save the day for Kansas City fans

      By Lisa Wade McCormick

      December 4, 2007
      All the headaches and frustration a Kansas City mom endured to get two of the much-coveted tickets to Hannah Montanas concert paid off Monday night.

      Claire N. and her 8-year-old daughter joined more than 12,000 screaming young fans who packed Kansas Citys Sprint Center and had the rare opportunity to see the 15-year-old teen idol perform some of her most popular songs, including Lifes What you Make It, Rock Star, and Pumpin up the Party.

      It was worth it for the sake of my daughter, Claire said of all hoopla surrounding the Best of Both Worlds Tour in which pop star Miley Cyrus performs as Hannah Montana and herself. My daughter loved it and to see all the excitement she and her friends hadit was definitely worth it. My daughter even thanked me again this morning.

      Getting tickets to the concert turned out to be a nightmare for Claire and parents across the country whose children have caught the Hannah Montana fever thats sweeping the nation.

      Claire tried in September to buy tickets -- online and over the phone right when they went on sale -- but discovered the concert was already sold out.

      She and other Missouri fans, however, immediately found scores of Hannah Montana tickets at various brokers for hundreds of dollars over face value. heard from parents nationwide who experienced the same problems when they tried to buy Hannah Montana tickets for their children.

      Claire also couldnt get any of the 4,000 tickets that went on sale early through Hannah Montanas fan club even though her daughter is a member.

      She finally snatched up two tickets in October -- thanks to action taken by Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon.

      The attorney general sued three brokers for allegedly scalping Hannah Montana tickets and -- at the same time -- reached an agreement with Ticketmaster to sell an additional 1,000 tickets to the rock stars Kansas City concert.

      Claire paid $56 dollars apiece -- or face value -- for two of those tickets when they went on sale in late October.

      Unsold blocks

      But on her way to Monday nights concert, Claire discovered that scores of additional Hannah Montana tickets had suddenly become available.

      Another mom -- whose daughter is friends with Claires -- told her that she bought two tickets around 4 p.m. That was a little more than three hours before the concert.

      And that mom didnt pay hundreds of dollars for the tickets, either. She paid $56 apiece for seats on the floor.

      Claires cell phone started ringing as news spread that parents had another chance to get Hannah Montana tickets.

      My brother is down at the Sprint Center and says theyre releasing more tickets, she said.

      A few minutes later, her phone rang again.

      He got them, she exclaimed. He got two tickets! And not just any tickets. Claires brother scored two front-row tickets.

      He got them at 4:50, she said. And he paid face value -- $56 apiece

      Before the concert started, Claire learned that a handful of other friends and family members were also able to get tickets -- at the last minute -- to much-touted concert that also features the Jonas Brothers.

      I know of five families that were able to get tickets just hours before the concert, she said, clicking off their names. The scalpers (brokers) turned in the tickets they couldnt sell.

      Claire, however, met one scalper before the concert who had no trouble selling his tickets.

      He told me that he had 40 tickets to the show -- he sold 38 and kept two for himself. And he said that he made enough money off those tickets to pay for Christmas this year, next year, and then some.

      As Claire reflected on her Hannah Montana-mania experience, she said she learned a lesson about frantically trying to get tickets to popular concerts.

      Its a lesson she wants to share with other parents especially those who live in cities where the pop diva has not yet performed on her concert tour.

      My message for other parents who are worried about getting Hannah Montana tickets is to be patient and go to the venue the day of the show, Claire said. Try not to buy tickets from scalpers because -- from what we witnessed in Kansas City -- you can get good tickets at the last minute for face value.

      So just be patient good things happen to those who wait.

      Hannah Montana Fans Skip the Scalpers...
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      Toy Dangers Not Confined To Lead

      Even safe toys can be dangerous if broken or mishandled

      December 4, 2007
      While parents are worried about potentially dangerous toys this holiday season, retailers are just as worried that parents will bypass the toy aisle this year. Both concerns are very real.

      I am very concerned about what toys to buy, says Linda Mata, who is buying toys for her grandchildren. You may buy them now, and then find out later that there is a recall after the children have already played with them.

      Jolene Duckworth, a mother of two, is also being extra cautious this holiday season.

      It is very important to know what types of toys are safe. The recent recalls due to lead have made me very worried about what to buy, she said.

      While toys exceeding federal standards for lead content should be a concern, it should not be the only thing on parents minds while shopping this holiday season, says Sharon Swindell, M.D., a pediatrician at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Childrens Hospital.

      The fact of the matter is that although these toy exposures are a concern for children, the biggest risk of lead exposure is still in the homes of the United States, she says. Parents need to really look at the toy carefully and read the labeling for many other things too, including if it is age-appropriate for your child.

      To help parents become smart toy shoppers, Swindell offers these five tips to pick the safest and most appropriate toys for kids this holiday season.

      1. Dont worry, but be vigilant. The toy recalls have raised concerns about a number of features on imported toys. Check online for up-to-date recall information before heading out to the stores. Look for warnings about small parts, breaking, fire and choking hazards, as well as information about lead paint. Even made in the U.S.A. does not mean it is a safe toy, so make sure to check all labels and recalls, Swindell cautions.

      2. Be cautious when shopping online. There are pros and cons to online shopping. While it may be more convenient, you are not able to hold the toy and examine it as effectively as you would in-person. If you prefer online shopping, Swindell recommends reading product reviews from multiple sources by other customers and independent panels to make sure the toy is safe.

      3. Chose toys wisely to make your children wiser. Toys that promote healthy behavior or require children to use their imagination should always be top picks. Toys such as a new bike, a puppet or doll, a book, or anything that involves the active engagement of the childs mind are good ways to promote mental activity and healthy habits.

      4. Inspect toys carefully and always read the labels. Toy testing is only done when the toy is intact, so even a safe toy can become dangerous. Broken toys must be thrown away. And before you purchase a toy, make sure it is well constructed. When pieces break off a toy, it can leave a sharp edge or cause a possible chocking hazard.

      When selecting a toy, make sure it is age-appropriate. Age recommendations are made by independent review panels that look at the size of the parts, strangulation and choking hazards as well as the ability of children to use the toys according to their motor skills, Swindell said.

      5. Research the toys on your little ones wish list. If your child has been dying for a toy all year and advertisements for it seem to be popping up everywhere, make sure to check it out before you buy. Look online for any recall information, product reviews by other customers and independent panels. If you find that the particular toy is just not right, look for other, similar options.

      If it is something that the kids have seen on TV or in a movie, try to find another toy that has that same theme but is just right, Swindell said. For example, consider a puzzle from your childs favorite movie instead of a movie action figure that may include small pieces.

      And, before you buy, be sure to consider these other toy-buying tips:

      • Buying a bike, tricycle, scooter, or anything with wheels? Make sure to buy a helmet.

      • Dont forget books they count as toys too.

      • Organic toys are becoming more popular, but Swindell cautions that there is not yet a designated label that provides information about a toy being organic.

      • Look for toys that are flame resistant, retardant or nonflammable.

      • If the toy is battery-operated or requires recharging of any sort, have a parent do it. Serious burns and other injuries may result if not done properly.

      • If you are buying a stuffed animal, doll or other toy that is filled, make sure the inside contents would not pose a choking hazard if the toy was ripped or broken. Avoid substances such as beans and pellets whenever possible.

      Toy Dangers Not Confined To Lead...
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      Indiana Sues Timeshare Marketers

      Promoters allegedly failed to honor refunds, award prizes, deliver the goods

      The State of Indiana is seeking penalties and restitution from three companies that operated a timeshare and travel club sales center out of Crown Point, Indiana before closing last summer.

      Harbor Management Corporation, Harbor Management of Colorado, LLC, and Vacation Resort Management, Inc. are alleged to have misrepresented terms of consumer contracts, failed to provide products and services, and refused to honor refunds and prize giveaways.

      This operation was like a vacation bait-and-release program based on the information weve received, Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter said. This is a marketing strategy that has gone awry and caused thousands of dollars of damage to people along the way.

      The lawsuit alleges that the companies did business in Indiana under various assumed and fictitious names, including Harbor Resort Management Group, Harbor Management Resort Group, Harbor Resorts, Vacation Resorts, Star Vacation Club, Star Vacations, and VRM.

      The violations alleged by the attorney general include:

      • Failing to disclose the retail value or odds for the prizes listed in mailing notices sent to consumers
      • Failing to disclose all the eligibility limitations and additional costs to receive prizes
      • Failing to provide promised prizes or an adequate substitutes
      • Telemarketing to consumers and making false representations of winning a prize or gift
      • Failing to file the required registration to sell timeshares in Indiana
      • Misrepresenting to consumers that they would receive a free prize or gift
      • Misrepresenting terms of contracts with consumers
      • Misrepresenting consumers financial obligations to third party finance companies
      • Misrepresenting the consumers rights and remedies and obligations for refunds and cancellation terms
      • Misrepresenting that they would perform the enrollment and fulfillment services for the consumers timeshare interests and vacation exchange club memberships.

      The three companies operated from Indiana from 2005 until last summer. The companies and their principal officers also have ties to three other states, including Illinois.

      Vacation Resort Management has offices in Batavia, Illinois and Oak Brook, Illinois. Harbor Management of Colorado, LLC has another location in Broomfield, Colorado.

      Harbor Management Corporation has a location in Las Vegas, Nevada. The principal officers named in the lawsuit are Madeline M. Allerton of Illinois, David W. Haddad of Las Vegas, Nevada and Lisa B. Jantalezio (a.k.a. Haddad, Alonso & Rogers) with addresses listed in Arkansas & Nevada.

      The lawsuit names nearly 15 consumers who entered into contracts and submitted down payments on timeshares and vacation club packages or memberships with the companies. The contracts ranged between $1,000 and $8,900. The attorney generals office anticipates that umber to rise as more complaints are processed.

      Harbor Management and Vacation Resort Management also have ties to another group sued last week by the attorney generals office for making illegal pre-recorded telemarketing calls and for violating the Indiana Do Not Call law.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      The State of Indiana is seeking penalties and restitution from three companies that operated a timeshare and travel club sales center out of Crown Point, I...
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      Amusement Park Rides Can Be Deadly

      Powerful lobbyists shield the industry from rigorous regulation

      December 4, 2007
      While part of the joy of amusement park rides is the fake element of risk, a report in today's Washington Post reveals that thrill rides may be outright deadly because there is nearly no effective federal or state safety oversight and industry lobbyists are spending millions to keep it that way.

      While the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) regulates traveling carnival rides, each state has a patchwork of inspection rules responsible for other thrill rides. On average four people die and thousands more are injured every year, according to federal estimates.

      At the center of The Post's investigation was the Sizzler, a spinning carnival ride manufactured by Wisdom Industries. Since 1997, the approximately 200 Sizzlers believed to be in operation have killed at least four and injured dozens more.

      The CPSC, which operates with a stretched budget and shrinking staff, has 90 field investigators responsible for ensuring the safety of carnival rides and 15,000 other products within the U.S. Rather than taking proactive investigations into dangerous rides, they often arrive at the scene of an accident after the ride has been dismantled.

      Pay attention

      CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson told that the agency does everything it can to prioritize an investigation after the agency learns of a serious injury or death at a traveling carnival.

      The most recent action taken for carnival rides was in 1999 when the agency prepared a repair program for the spinning Himalaya ride which killed two and injured three.

      The CPSC responded last year to the Sizzler deaths and injuries by saying ride operators need to pay "greater attention to safety."

      Traveling carnivals often sell a dangerous ride after it has killed or seriously injured a customer rather than fix it or put it out of service. State inspectors told The Post there's no way to track those rides.

      Carnival rides are a small portion of the thrill ride industry. Stationary ride companies, such as Disney and Six Flags, funnel millions of thrill-seekers into their parks every summer but have no federal oversight and a minimal state-by-state patchwork.

      Severed feet

      Four individuals died on rides this summer. But the gruesome story that grabbed headlines was that of 13-year-old Kaitlyn Lasitter whose feet were severed by a loose cable on the Tower of Power at Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom. Surgeons could only reattach her right foot.

      Lasitter's father told The Post he was shocked to discover there is no federal inspection program for the ride that left his daughter traumatized and suffering from frequent nightmares.

      That exemption from federal oversight was the first of many power plays by high-powered Washington lobbyists.

      In 1981 industry lobbyists hired Washington lawyer Kenneth Starr to convince Capitol Hill that the CPSC, which then had jurisdiction over stationary rides and whose staff was more than double its current size, was causing unnecessary economic hardship to amusement parks.

      More safety measures might lessen the risk but would "make the ride worthless," lobbyist John Graff told Congress at the time, the newspaper reported. "The activities of the commission must be limited."

      The exemption has left oversight in the hands of state programs, some which have no inspectors or enforcement powers.

      By invitation only

      In Florida, for example, safety inspectors can only come to an amusement park when invited. The consortium of parks in Florida do invite the inspectors once a year to an educational seminar, but do not allow the inspectors to inspect anything.

      So far, the only worried voice in Washington is that of Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) who first introduced legislation after four people died on rides in one week in the summer of 1999.

      Markey secured a half-hour hearing in the then-Republican Congress on his legislation that would reinstate federal authority.

      The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions responded to that hearing by quadrupling its lobbying funds to $430,000 in 2001 while providing campaign contributions and expensive trips to amusement resorts to key House Energy and Commerce Committee representatives and their staff. Even Markey received $23,000 in campaign contributions. His legislation died.

      "Every summer there is a flurry of interest as the accidents and injuries happen," Markey told The Post. By autumn, "nobody decides that this is a big issue. ... Very few industries have been able to build a loophole in federal law and hold it for as long as they have. They are a powerful lobbying force."

      Markey has reintroduced his 2000 legislation and there is expected to be a hearing this week. The House Energy and Commerce Committee website does not have it on the calendar yet.

      While part of the joy of amusement park rides is the fake element of risk, a report in today's Washington Post reveals that thrill rides may be outright de...
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      Feds Propose New Rules for Credit Bureaus

      Consumers could dispute bad data directly with lenders

      Consumers frequently complain that they have tried in vain to correct inaccuracies in their credit reports. Now a federal task force has issued proposed rules that might make the process a little easier.

      The proposed rules would let consumers dispute data in their reports directly with lenders rather than with the three major credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and Trans Union.

      The 191-page document was crafted by a multiagency task force that included the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), and the Office of Thrift Supervision.

      The definition of "accuracy and integrity" takes up a considerable part of the report, with the agencies submitting two types of definitions apiece for the "regulation" and "guidelines" sections.

      The "regulation" definition provides that "information furnished to a CRA may be technically 'accurate' yet lack 'integrity' because it presents a misleading picture of the consumer's creditworthiness by omitting critical information, such as a credit limit on a revolving credit account."

      The "guidelines" approach "does not address the omission of any term the absence of which could contribute to an incorrect evaluation by a user of a consumer's creditworthiness," the report said, emphasizing that the data "furnisher" should investigate and verify that information it provides is accurate and up-to-date.

      Among the specific policies and procedures the agency report recommends for data accuracy are:

      • Using standard data reporting formats and standard procedures for compiling and furnishing data, such as the electronic transmission of information about consumers to CRAs.

      • Ensuring that the furnisher maintains its own records for a reasonable period of time, not less than any applicable record-keeping requirement, in order to substantiate the accuracy of any information about consumers it furnishes that may be subject to a direct dispute.

      • Training staff that participates in activities related to the furnishing of information about consumers to CRAs to implement the policies and procedures.

      • Ensuring that technological and other means of communication with CRAs are designed to prevent duplicative reporting of accounts, erroneous association of information with the wrong consumer(s), and other occurrences that may compromise the accuracy and integrity

      • of information contained in consumer reports.

      Data In Dispute

      The report recommended that data furnishers directly investigate a dispute of data if the dispute related to a consumer's liability for the debt in case of identity theft, the validity of the debt, the debt's payment status or balance, or any other information that "bears on the consumer's creditworthiness, credit standing, credit capacity, character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living attributed to the furnisher on the consumer report."

      Exemptions from the direct dispute regulation would be any information reported by the lender that comes from public records, such as bankruptcy filings, property purchases, tax liens, and criminal judgments, as well as inquiries related to past or present employment.

      The agencies advised that data furnishers provide an address "clearly and conspicuously specified" for submitting data disputes both in writing and electronically, though the data furnishers would not be held liable if a credit reporting agency got the address wrong when providing a report to consumers.

      The report also mandates that in order for a dispute to be investigated and not dismissed as "frivolous," consumers must provide specific information detailing the dispute and contact information including a name, address, and telephone number.

      The report is available as a free PDF download. The report will soon be published in the Federal Register, and the agencies have included information for submitting comments on the proposal for up to 60 days after publication.

      The proposed new rules were mandated by the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) of 2003, an update to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) which governs credit and consumer reporting agencies.

      As per section 312 of FACTA, "the Agencies are proposing guidelines for use by entities that furnish information about consumers to a consumer reporting agency regarding the accuracy and integrity of the information that they furnish," according to a joint statement.

      "The Agencies are also proposing regulations that would require each entity that furnishes information to a consumer reporting agency to establish reasonable policies and procedures for implementing the guidelines," the report said.

      Feds Propose New Rules for Credit Bureaus: Now a federal task force has issued proposed rules that might make the process a little easier....
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      Spoofed Credit Union E-Mails Could Ruin Consumers' Holidays

      Brazen new scheme takes 'phishing' one step further

      December 3, 2007
      A dangerous new identity theft scheme is targeting credit union customers across the country.

      According to consumer and credit union groups, spoof e-mails are directing credit union customers to call a telephone number and confirm their personal information. Consumers who make the call do not reach their credit union, but instead end up on the telephone with a scam artist who wants to steal their identity.

      Savvy consumers have increasingly learned to identify and delete spoof e-mails that falsely appear to originate from legitimate banks or credit card companies. Known as phishing, these e-mails direct consumers to a decoy Web site that allows the scammers to collect all the information they need to empty the customers bank accounts and ruin their credit.

      Phishing scams have been around for years, but increasingly sophisticated criminals now send e-mails instructing consumers to call a telephone number instead of clicking on a link. This tactic, known as vishing, can be especially effective because consumers who encounter a live person are much more likely to let down their guard.

      The latest vishing scam immediately disarms consumers by specifically warning about similar schemes. One recently circulated e-mail reads:

      Dear Credit Union Customer,

      We regret to inform you that we have received numerous fraudulent emails which ask for personal account information. The emails contained links to fraudulent pages that looked legit. Please remember that we will never ask for personal account information via email or web pages.

      Because of this we are launching a new security system to make Credit Union accounts more secure and safe. To take advatage [sic] of our new consumer Identity Theft Protection Program we had to deactivate access to your card account.

      To activate it please call us immediately.

      The e-mail provides a telephone number with a U.S. area code, adding to its air of legitimacy. In an especially brazen move, the e-mail offers identity theft tips and links to the Federal Trade Commissions identity theft prevention Web site.

      Consumers who think the e-mail is legitimate call the number and furnish sensitive information to a person they believe is a trusted credit union employee. Only when their identity is stolen do they realize it was all a scam.

      These vishing scams combine the phishing ploy with a Web-based telephone scheme. The telephone numbers that appear in these e-mails are set up through VoIP, which is an Internet-based telecommunications service. Even though the phone number appears to be based in a familiar U.S. area code, the scammers are most likely in other countries and impossible to track down.

      Consumers who receive this or any other unexpected e-mail or phone call seeking personal information should not respond.

      Consumers who have concerns about their account should contact their credit union by calling the telephone number that appears in the local directory or on their periodic statements. Never click on a link or call a telephone number that appears in an unexpected e-mail.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      Spoofed Credit Union E-Mails Could Ruin Consumers' Holidays...
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      Japanese Dominate Car Owner Satisfaction Survey

      Europeans Gain Slightly, Domestics Inch Upward

      Japanese vehicles continue their domination over domestic and European brands in Consumer Reports' Annual Car Owner Satisfaction Survey.

      Of the 39 car models that made CR's latest Most Satisfying car list, 18 toted Japanese nameplates with 10 of those built by Toyota.

      For the fourth straight year, the Toyota Prius hybrid was identified by those surveyed as the most satisfying of any vehicle, with 92 percent of Prius owners indicating they would definitely buy one again. Following closely, were the BMW 335i coupe/convertible and Porsche Boxster, which drew scores of 91 and 90 respectively.

      European models accounted for 12 cars on the list -- a slight increase from last year. Domestic models remained steady at seven, and for the first time, two South Korean models, the Hyundai Azera (83) and Hyundai Santa Fe (80), made CR's Most Satisfying car list.

      Domestics inch upward

      For the first time in five years, domestic models have gained ground in the family car category, which has been consistently dominated by Japanese nameplates.

      The Ford Fusion V6 with all-wheel-drive and Saturn Aura were identified by respondents as two of the top four most satisfying family cars behind the Toyota Prius and Toyota Camry Hybrid. The inclusion of the Lincoln MKZ AWD was also a five-year first for a domestic model to be found among the most satisfying Luxury/Upscale cars.

      "These latest results suggest that domestic carmakers are getting better at capturing what people want in the car they drive every day," said Rik Paul, automotive editor for Consumer Reports.

      Euros top sports category

      European models dominated the sporty car and roadster categories taking 10 of the top 14 spots.

      While the BMW 335i RWD (91), Porsche Boxster (90) lead the way, the Mini Cooper proved to be a very satisfying vehicle, three versions -- the Cooper S (88), Cooper Convertible (81) and Cooper Hatchback (80) all made the list. Performance generates a strong passion amongst owners; of the top 12 most satisfying cars, half were sports cars.

      Consumers Reports Annual Car Owner Satisfaction Survey asks subscribers if they would buy the car or truck they own again, considering its price, performance, comfort, reliability, and enjoyment. In all, subscribers rated their experience with more than 415,000 vehicles and more than 300 separate models, in the survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

      Least satisfying domestics

      Among the least satisfying cars, domestics accounted for 20 of the 22 in the lineup, 15 of which are from General Motors. These included the least satisfying vehicles to own: the Buick Terraza, Chevrolet Uplander and Saturn Relay minivans, with only 34 percent of those asked reporting they would definitely buy or lease one again.

      There were no European nameplates listed among the Least Satisfying Car list, but several popular European nameplates, including Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Saab and Volvo were absent among the Most Satisfying car list.

      Consumer Reports Most Satisfying vehicles are those for which at least 80 percent of owners said they would definitely buy or lease the vehicle again. CR's Least Satisfying vehicles are those for which less than 50 percent of owners said they would do so.

      Models are listed within categories in order of most satisfying:

      Most Satisfying

      • Small Cars: Honda Fit, Volkswagen Rabbit
      • Family Cars: Toyota Prius, Toyota Camry Hybrid, Ford Fusion V6 (AWD), Saturn Aura
      • Large Cars: Hyundai Azera, Toyota Avalon
      • Upscale/Luxury Cars: Lexus LS 460, Acura TL Type-S, BMW 330i/335i (sedan),
      • Infiniti M35 RWD, Lincoln MKZ (AWD)
      • Sports Cars/Roadsters: Porsche Boxster, Porsche Cayman, Chevrolet Corvette, Mini Cooper S (hatchback), Honda S2000, Porsche 911 Carrera, Mazda MX-5 Miata, Audi S4, Mini Cooper (Convertible), Ford Mustang (V8), Volkswagen GTI, Mini Cooper (hatchback)
      • Coupes/Convertibles: BMW 335i (RWD), Volkswagen Eos
      • Wagons/ Hatchbacks: Mazdaspeed3
      • Minivans: Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey
      • SUVs: Lexus RX350, Ford Edge, Toyota Land Cruiser, Chrysler Aspen (4WD), Hyundai Santa Fe, Toyota RAV4 (V6), Toyota 4Runner (V6)
      • Pickup Trucks: Honda Ridgeline, Toyota Tundra (V8)

      Least Satisfying

      • Small Cars: Chevrolet Cobalt (coupe, nonturbo), Saturn Ion (sedan), Chevrolet Cobalt (Sedan), Chevrolet Aveo (sedan)
      • Minivans: Ford Freestar, Buick Terraza, Chevrolet Uplander, Saturn Relay
      • SUVs: Chevrolet Trail Blazer (6-cyl., RWD) GMC Envoy (6-cyl., RWD), Suzuki Grand Vitara, Jeep Commander (V6), Chevrolet Equinox, Jeep Grand Cherokee (V6, gas)
      • Pickup Trucks: Dodge Dakota, Chevrolet Colorado (5-cyl.), GMC Envoy (5-cyl.), GMC Canyon (4-cyl.), Ford Ranger, Mazda B-Series, Chevrolet Colorado (4-cyl.), GMC Canyon (4-cyl.)
      Japanese vehicles continue their domination over domestic and European brands in Consumer Reports' Annual Car Owner Satisfaction Survey....
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      Video Professor Goes After Critics

      'Professor' claims consumer complaints are fabricated

      John Scherer, also known as the "Video Professor," has promised for years on late-night infomercials that he is so confident in his product, he will give you -- yes, you! -- a free computer lesson.

      But after hundreds of consumers have complained on the Internet that the lesson is not free at all, the "professor" is responding to critics with threats of a lawsuit.

      For 20 years, Scherer, the bald, friendly, mustachioed Video Professor has promised one free disc to computer illiterates who struggle with the Internet, Windows, Word, or a handful of other software titles. But as the consumers tell it, that disc is not free. In fact, it is the beginning of a subscription service that costs $79.95 a month and includes more computer guides, even for software the customer may not own.

      Scherer's business model -- which appears similar to the Girls Gone Wild video series and the Columbia House DVD club -- has produced numerous angry customers, especially on the consumer complaint website

      Now, Scherer has gone after the website's owner, Justin Leonard, and has demanded that he reveal the names of 100 consumers who have posted complaints about Video Professor.

      Leonard has refused to give up the names and has turned to Public Citizen, the nonprofit consumer advocacy organization founded by Ralph Nader, for legal help.

      We've basically told Video Professor that we're not going to give them any information unless they give us some real proof that there's some real defamation going on here, Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with Public Citizen, said.

      Levy said he believes Scherer wants the names of those consumers so that he can personally sue them for libel.

      Fabricated complaints?

      Scherer told that that is not the case.

      We have never sued a customer and we never will sue a customer, Scherer said.

      Scherer said he hopes to get the names of the customers because he believes that at least some of the complaints may be fabricated by Leonard or that his competition is posting them.

      However, Leonard's website is just one of many avenues that consumers have used to share their Video Professor gripes.

      The Better Business Bureau has received 590 complaints in the past 36 months. has received 37. Even the Denver Post has complaints on file. Complaints can be read on at least five other websites, including Ripoff Report, Epinions, Complaints Board and The Squeaky Wheel.

      It's not credible that competitors would send consumer-sounding complaints to the Denver Post and BBB, Levy said.

      There has to be some truth because there's too many consistencies, said Levy.

      But Scherer insisted that the complaints can't be true and said that if they are, he will compensate his unhappy customers. He suggested that the onus falls on Leonard and requested that he contact all the people who have complained on and explain that they can get a refund if they expose themselves to Video Professor.

      But Levy doubts Scherer's intentions are that good-willed.

      If he wants to help them why doesn't he post something that says, 'Hey, I want to help you, I don't want to sue you. Come tell me what we've done wrong and we'll refund your money.' And that ought to be sufficient but obviously he does want to sue them, Levy said.

      If Video Professor wins the case, which is currently in the Colorado District Court, and is given the names of those posters, it could have a chilling effect on free speech and the marketplace of thought, Levy said.

      Scherer said he does not want to impede free speech but questioned whether people should be allowed to post anonymously.

      I think that people should be allowed to post anonymously the truth, Scherer said. Nobody should be stopped (from posting anonymously).

      What amendment that is that we have the right to be anonymous and defame someone, he later said.

      Why do people have to hide in the shadows? I'll post all day long with my name. I'm not worried about being sued if I tell the truth, he said.

      However, most consumers do not have their own legal counsel, nor do they have the time and money to defend themselves against lawsuits. And, in fact, while the truth is a defense against libel, the person who is sued still faces considerable time and expense in convincing a court that the statements were truthful.

      The biggest danger is that people are just intimidated by the fact of the litigation. 'Oh gee, I could get sued so I'm just going to remain quiet,'" said Levy. "What we need are more victories in this area so that people gain the reassurance that if this happens to them, they too will be protected.

      The Colorado case is currently pending filing of a motion by Video Professor's attorneys, due by mid-December.

      Next: A visit to the professor's 'classroom'

      But after hundreds of consumers have complained on the Internet that the lesson is not free at all, the "professor" is responding to critics with threats o...
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      Veterinarians Solve Pet Food Death Puzzle

      Combination of two chemicals proved lethal

      Veterinarians say the mystery behind the deaths of dogs and cats across the country that ate tainted pet food earlier this year has been solved.

      The veterinarians now blame the deaths on the combination of two chemicals the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found in the more than 60 million containers of recalled pet food: melamine and cyanuric acid.

      Melamine is used to make plastic. Cyanuric acid is used to chlorinate pools. Neither is approved for use in pet food.

      Those two chemicals -- which FDA officials discovered in the imported wheat gluten and rice protein concentrated use to make pet food -- can combine and form crystals in the animals bodies, the veterinarians say.

      And those crystals can impair the animals kidney function.

      Either one of those chemicals alone wouldnt cause these (deaths), Dr. Barbara Powers, immediate past president of the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians (AAVLD) and director of Colorado State Universitys Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, told us on Friday. It has to be the combination of the two.

      So its not melamine alone.

      Dr. Powers comments support a theory raised earlier this year by the University of Guelphs Animal Health Laboratory in Ontario about what might have caused pets to die after eating the tainted food.

      Tests conducted at the university revealed that melamine and cyanuric acid could react to form crystals that block kidney function.

      When the study came out in May, John Melicherik, director of analytical services for Guelph's laboratory services, told The Toronto Star: "This is a piece of the puzzle, a significant finding. We have found these crystals in cats that have suffered renal failure."

      Story continues below video

      Thousands of deaths

      Dr. Barbara Powers

      Since Menu Foods announced its massive pet food recall in March, the FDA has received 17,000 complaints from consumers who said their dogs or cats suffered kidney problems or died after eating the tainted food. FDA officials, however, only confirmed 16 pet-food related deaths.

      In the months that followed Menus recall, heard from scores of pet owners who said their dogs or cats became seriously ill or died after eating the adulterated food. Many had lost two, three or even more pets.

      And were still getting complaints.

      Some consumers even hired a private laboratory in Texas to analyze their pets food for possible toxins. That facility is Expertox Analytical Laboratory, which has confirmed to us that it detected the pain killer acetaminophen in some samples of pet food.

      But Dr. Powers downplayed Expertoxs findings.

      Thats not an AAVLD lab and acetaminophen has never been confirmed (in pet food) by other labs, she said. Thats a not a valid finding.

      Meanwhile, veterinarians now have a better idea of just how many dogs and cats died after eating the contaminated pet food.

      Dr. Powers told us that a recently released survey by the AAVLD found the number of confirmed deaths linked to the tainted pet food -- ones that met specific criteria for kidney failure -- now stands at 226.

      Of those deaths, 143 were cats and 83 were dogs.

      But there absolutely could be more deaths from the tainted pet food, Dr. Powers said, adding veterinarians across the country participated in the organizations survey. This survey didnt catch all the deaths that happened. In order to be counted in our survey, you had to meet certain criteria.

      She added: If someone had a pet that died and they buried it in their background, they werent eligible for our survey. We had to have confirmed exposure to the recalled pet food, proof of toxicity, and clinical signs of renal failure. So this is only a percentage of the deaths that are out there. Theres no way to guess how many pets were affected.

      More cats died

      The AAVLDs Pet Food-Induced Nephrotoxicity" survey also discovered that more cats than dogs became sick or died after eating the tainted food.

      We dont know why it affected cats more than dogs, Dr. Powers said. It could very well have to do with the animals size -- cats are smaller than dogs. Or it could be the animals metabolism. Cats have a different metabolism than dogs.

      What about smaller dogs?

      We broke the breeds down into small, medium, and large and discovered that small dogs were affected more by the tainted pet food, Dr. Powers said. So there is certainly a size factor there.

      Her colleague, Dr. Wilson Rumbeiha, associate professor at the Michigan State University Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health, agreed.

      Even among dogs, small- to medium-size dogs were affected the most, he said.

      The AAVLDs voluntary survey included more than 550 cases nationwide, but only 347 met its specific criteria for kidney failure caused by the tainted food, Dr. Powers said.

      The impetus for us to do this survey was because we as association members started seeing these cases (earlier this year) showing up in our labs across the country. We have a listserv where we chat among ourselves and we were talking about us seeing all these deaths in dogs and cats. I was president of the association at the time and said we need to do a survey and see whats going on and what the extent of this problem is. Thats how this got started.

      Quicker response needed

      The organizations next goal, she said, is to obtain federal funding that would allow labs across the country to respond more quickly if theres another tainted pet food or other type of toxicological crisis.

      Its hard to prevent something like this from happening again, she said. Im sure there are now safeguards in place, but you cant check for every toxin under sun. And who would have ever thought to screen for melamine and cyanuric acid. Those were chemicals that werent on anyones radar.

      Veterinarians Solve Pet Food Death Puzzle...
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