We consumers are a trusting bunch. We’ll spend hours carefully comparing the specs of two competing products, pore over reviews, and scrutinize images and videos of potential purchases (please tell me I’m not alone). But do we ever check to see if the product has been certified as safe by an independent third party before hitting the buy button?
Typically, we don’t, and it’s a growing problem — just ask the unfortunate Samsung Galaxy Note 7 buyers who recently discovered that their phones came with an undocumented feature: the ability to spontaneously combust.
You can chalk this behavior up to complacency. After decades of seeing those reassuring little marks like UL, CSA, or ETL — and hearing only rare situations where a gadget or appliance has failed in a spectacular or dangerous fashion — we’ve come to expect that our purchases aren’t going to kill us. After all, you can’t sell a product that hasn’t been tested, can you?
Surprisingly, yes, you can.
“Technically anything can be put on the market to consumers,” says John Coviello, senior test engineer of electrical products at TUV Rheinland of North America, a company that performs safety certifications on thousands of products marketed globally. Over at UL (previously known by its full name, Underwriter’s Laboratory), consumer safety director John Drengenberg concurs. “I’m not aware of any federal law that requires a consumer product or even a commercial product to come to UL or any testing organization,” he told Digital Trends. “There is no such thing.”
Despite the lack of a legal requirement to do so, billions of products are tested every year by independent third-parties like UL and TUV, which is why dangerous product failures are relatively rare. Nonetheless, the loophole exists, and some companies take advantage of the situation, leaving consumers without any way of verifying the safety of a product.
Last year, this situation played out with devastating consequences, thanks to a spate of incidents of “hoverboards” bursting into flames. It has become such a common problem with these devices, enterprising accessory companies are jumping into the fray with products to help owners avoid catastrophe. One might be tempted to lay the blame on small-time manufacturers who have cut one too many corners in an attempt to quickly cash-in on the latest trend. But as the Galaxy Note 7 debacle proves, it can happen to major, household-name brands too. But why?
“In the U.S., for home use, a product isn’t required to have any [safety] approvals,” Coviello points out. “That’s probably why you have these scooters burning up. They weren’t approved, which is the whole crux of the problem.” Adding fuel to this safety fire is the misapplication (or in some cases outright fraudulent application) of safety certification marks. Canadian hoverboard online retailer Hoverbird.ca makes the following claim in its FAQ:
“Are Hoverboards safe for humans and children? All our Hoverboards come with a digital speed limiter, preventing the boards from traveling faster than 10mph for rider safety. All our Hoverboards batteries & charger are UL certified, which means our products are safe for use by humans of all ages.”
This certainly sounds like grounds for confidence on the part of the consumer. Trouble is, the battery and charger are only two parts of a larger system, which includes the circuitry that transfers power from the battery to the motor and the housing of the battery. If the entire product hasn’t been UL or CSA certified for safety, there’s a chance it’s not as safe as the seller suggests.
Related: The days of exploding lithium-ion batteries might soon be over
“The [battery] cells might be UL certified, but they weren’t tested in combination with 30 of those,” Coviello says. “There’s supposed to be control circuitry to monitor them all,” he adds, referring to the fact that hoverboards use more than one battery. “If that circuitry is not in there, it will work — until something goes wrong.” In fact, many hoverboard fires have occurred when in use or being stored, not connected to the charger.
In the case of the Galaxy Note 7, Samsung has laid the blame for the explosions and fires on the batteries themselves, citing a manufacturing error. Coviello thought this is the most plausible explanation, given that the design of the batteries usually undergo “very torturous testing.”
Fortunately, following a harsh warning issued by the Consumer Product Safety Commission to all hoverboard retailers earlier this year, there is now a full UL certification standard for these products and the first fully-compliant models are now being made available.
If there’s no law requiring these safety certifications, what’s the incentive for manufacturers to acquire them? “For consumer products, the driving force is the retailer,” Drengenberg answered. “You can build the best clock-radio ever in your basement and a retailer might be ready to order a million of them,” he said, but the retailer will first ask that it be certified for safety. “They don’t want to undertake the risk of putting it on their shelves and having problems with it.”
Coviello agreed that retailers largely want to keep dangerous items off their shelves, but isn’t convinced that all retailers police this requirement equally. “You go take a look at those store shelves, I’m sure you’ll find something that’s not approved,” he warned. “There is no law that requires retailers to only sell certified products.”
Amazon, for instance, is reluctant to speak directly to the question of whether or not it requires — or verifies — the safety certifications of the products it sells. Shortly before writing this article, I bought an Aukey USB wall charger from Amazon.ca, which exhibited some sparking and buzzing when I used it. The charger bore an ETL safety certification from Intertek — a third-party safety certification company similar to UL and TUV — which I assumed was an assurance that the product was safe. A call to Intertek revealed that while it’s possible the Aukey charger had been certified by them, the product was not authorized by Intertek to bear their certification mark because Intertek has never certified a product sold under the “Aukey” brand.
When I reached out to Amazon’s team for comment, they replied by citing Amazon’s A-to-Z Customer Guarantee and its Anti-Counterfeiting Policy, neither of which addresses the issue of safety certification requirements. And, despite providing Amazon with a copy of Intertek’s response that the Aukey product in question isn’t authorized to carry the ETL mark, it’s still for sale as of the writing of this article.