What if There’s a Recall…But I Already Ate It?

yellowrecallwarn.jpgWith one million pounds of ground beef recalled this weekend (adding to this year’s total of “more than 30 million pounds of ground beef — enough to make 120 million quarter-pound burgers“), the issue of what to do about a recall of something you just ate is not a theoretical concern. In addition, over six million toys this year alone have been recalled due to high lead levels. What if your child has been teething on a Mattel recall for the last nine months? Merchandise recalls were designed to be a rare situation where stores pull an item off the shelves because of a last-minute defect. The stores then return the products for credit. No harm, no foul.

Given the millions and millions of items being recalled this year because of health issues, the “recall” process is beginning to seem about as ineffective and old-fashioned as a chaperone for Paris Hilton. So, click the More button below for Doc Gurley’s Practical Medicine Tips on what to do when something gets recalled that’s already in your house (or your body!).

1) With food recalls, pretend you’re Target, and do inventory. Go through your shelves, and, especially your deep freezer. Yes, all the way down to the bottom. If your deep freezer is like mine, you may find a woolly mammoth at the bottom. Persevere.

A few deep-freezer expedition safety issues: Watch out for flying ice chips from the pickaxe. And don’t forget the crampons. (Is it just me, or do crampons sound like they should be advertised for that “especially heavy time of the month”?)

2) When it comes to lead-tainted toys, you have to fight the urge to pretend it never happened (or that it couldn’t be your child’s toys). This is an area where it’s easy to get overwhelmed and despair of making a difference (there’s that nasty voice inside your head whispering that the horse is already out of the barn, so why bother?). But you won’t do that, no sirree, because you are SuperParent! You’re going to roll up your sleeves, tie a towel-cape around your neck and do battle with evil profiteers who are poisoning your child for a bigger bonus. How do you do this? Well, you have two choices:

a) If you want to selectively purge, go to this site for a list of toys that have been recalled. But let me warn you, they don’t make it easy. For example, the Consumer Product Safety Commission lists item by “not toy” that clearly, to my daughters’ way of thinking, are toys. You need to go through every category and age group.

b) Maybe you can’t be bothered with listing and cross-referencing all your child’s toys. Maybe you, like me, have an Everest-sized mountain of toys in your child’s room. If so, the crampons from the deep-freezer expedition will come in handy. Or maybe you’re just cynical realistic about the sad state of lead detection in children’s toys and are thinking the recalled items may just be the tip of the Everest. If so, you may want to go all the way with the purge. Toss all toys that are suspect. To me, that means toys that have been made by people without these three things: excellent oversight, decent wages, and living in a country with a government that has a strong consumer safety record. Maybe having fewer, safe toys should be the theme for gifts from now on.

Whichever you choose—selective purge or everything–believe me, it is never too late to stop lead exposure. Prevention is the name of the game here. You want to stop lead going into your child, even if there is only one molecule-sized fleck of lead left on Dora the Explorer. Some people have argued that toys that are “intact” or toys that are not intended to be put in the mouth, may not pose as much risk. Those theories are fraying as fast as confidence in American’s toy -manufacturers as the sheer volume of lead-contaminated toys explodes. Lead exposure is cumulative. There is no “safe” lower level. Any is bad. Perhaps, strictly speaking, a lead-toxic lunchbox is not designed to actually go in your mouth, but still, give me a break.

3) You’ve done inventory, you’ve purged. Now what? If it’s an E.coli food recall that you’re dealing with, and you already ate it, you do what we in medicine call, “watchful waiting.” What that means, basically, is you keep the issue in mind and tell your family and friends, so that if (in the next few days to weeks) you get a weird high fever, a bad case of diarrhea—especially, bloody diarrhea, nausea/vomiting or some other E. coli-related symptom, you get to the doctor right away and tell them you may have been exposed. The more life-threatening complications (called the hemolytic-uremic-syndrome, or HUS) tend to not appear until about a week after the bloody diarrhea begins. Keep in mind that the vast majority of people who ingest toxic E.coli survive.

So is there anyone who ought to be treated before they get sick? Given the current state of care, the answer is probably no. Studies have shown that taking drugs to stop the diarrhea, or taking any antibiotics at all, may actually make you much sicker. The treatment for people with this serious illness generally involves doing diagnostic and prognostic tests, and then providing what we like to call supportive care—including the intensive care unit and/or dialysis for the very sick. But if you just ate a wad of bloody recalled beef, and you have serious health problems (like severe immune deficiencies), you may want to ask your doctor about testing and observation options. Those at greatest risk of serious E. coli complications are the very young, the very old, and those with serious health problems.

4) Your kid’s been swimming in a carpeted sea of lead-coated toys since birth, teethed on every toy that’s been recalled, and sure, you purged them all (and then some), but now what? Well, the American Academy of Pediatrics has been conspicuously silent on revising their lead-testing recommendations in the wake of all these toy recalls. Lead accumulates in bodies over time. The test for lead is a blood lead level. Lead-testing recommendations are based on the (still) quite serious risks of exposures from lead-based paint, or, worse yet, the presence of lead-poisoning symptoms. Current lead screening recommendations are to test all babies at one year and two years old—ages that don’t help with the Polly Pocket, Barbie, military action figure, Halloween ugly teeth, and ceramic tea set recalls. Lead doesn’t cause obvious symptoms until the exposure is severe—no one wants to wait for symptoms. One of the main complicating issues is that lead treatment is no piece of cake. Once lead gets in your child, it’s not “simple” to get it out. You can always ask for a blood test and then be prepared to discuss options once you know where you stand. However, insurance companies may or may not cover the costs of the blood test if the only indication is toy exposure in a child older than two—so you may want to find out the price of the test. Treatment for very high lead levels, however, should be covered. Most importantly, though, be aggressive about preventing lead exposure (and if you’re living in a house with peeling lead-based paint, then all I can say is, eek. Get the biggest risk, the paint, dealt with first!). A final word: if your child ever swallows a lead-tainted toy, don’t wait, get your kid to the doctor pronto! Several deaths from lead-contaminated toys have occurred because of swallowed parts, such as charms, beads, etc.

5) This fall also saw the recall of many models of implanted heart defibrillators. Now that’s a horrible recall situation. The defibrillators are recalled because of concerns about newer brittle wires breaking or shorting, (for those who may not know, these defibrillators are surgically implanted in the chest with wires inserted and embedded into the ventricles). If this recall applies to you, well, (as we say in the South) bless your heart. You have my greatest sympathies. There is no good answer to this particular recall problem—see your doctor and talk it over, and then be sure to put the defibrillator recall on your Medical-Alert type bracelet.

6) Take a stand for better consumer protection, less profit and more quality. Vote with your wallet. Ask for more regulation, even if you’re an anarchist. These shipping containers of toys ought to be lead-tested before they’re unloaded (yes, it’s an easy and quick test to do). When you’ve got a head of steam up about something and you’re feeling really cranky, sit and write a letter. You’ll feel less victimized and more empowered afterward. You may even want to wear that towel-cape everywhere (but leave the crampons at home, with the other feminine hygiene products).

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