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Kaboom! Why Investigative Reporters Should Stay Out of the Kitchen

“Betrayed” or bamboozled by exploding Pyrex dishes? FOX is forced to take a prima facie example of bad consumer reporting down.

“Nothing,” said Channel 29 anchor Kerri-Lee Halkett, “is worse than being betrayed by an old friend, especially in the kitchen.” Really – nothing? Not even betrayal in the bedroom – or on the battlefield? In the hyperbolic world of local TV news the transition from pathos to ridiculous is swift and often bizarre, and such was the case with a March 7 report on the FOX news affiliate in Philadelphia.

“It didn't break, it exploded, ” said Pyrex dish owner Kim Insumita. “I apparently fell back--it jolted me back like this, and this is where I was, and I just like screamed. It was really a bad experience. I have the pie pans, I have the baking dishes, I have everything.  I'm not using any of it anymore.”

FOX reporter Jennaphr Frederick gave viewers a palpable sense of the devastation to heart and home.

“The love died the day the pan exploded. Her mouth-watering roast left in the oven, pieces of blue glass piercing its warm skin.”

So what caused the Pyrex to explode? Insumita couldn’t say, except that anyone using Pyrex was playing “Russian Roulette;” the manufacturer of Pyrex, unsurprisingly couldn’t say anything about the what happened based solely on a call about the incident from the FOX reporter.

"We will, however, state that Pyrex Glass Bakeware is a safe product that has never been subject to a recall by any governmental agency,” said Bryan Glancy, Vice President, World Kitchen.

But Frederick told viewers that

“…ever since we started running the commercial teasing this story throughout the day, I've been receiving all kinds of telephone calls. One woman received third- and fourth-degree burns, OK?  A lot of people with scars from the glass…

All I've been told – and we have not heard of this from any expert – is that it happens when you take a really hot dish and put it on a colder counter.”

Damned by a telephone call. Not surprisingly, World Kitchen, the manufacturer of Pyrex complained to FOX, which removed the story from the channel's website.

How to check out a consumer scare
World kitchen say that they have made 340 million items of Pyrex glassware since 1998 that can be used in the oven. This tells us that if Pyrex is everywhere, and there is something fundamentally flawed in either its manufacture or composition, there should be more than anecdotal evidence out there. This amount of product being used on a daily basis is vast.

And yet, a search of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) website finds nothing on Pyrex Bakeware – no product recalls, no indication of safety problems.

However, the CPSC also maintains a searchable database of injuries compiled from a sample of hospitals across the United States, called the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS). Information is collected from patients who show up at any one of these hospitals with injuries from a product, and the number of injuries from the particular product, whether a toy gun or an electric toothbrush, can then estimated for the entire U.S.

There is no NEISS code for Pyrex glassware, but using the code for non-metal cookware (0461), which includes glass bakeware, and the most recent year for data, 2005, we find that there were 30 reports of injuries in this category, with a national injury estimate of 1,444 cases.

The actual reported cases show only two incidents of shattering that weren’t explicitly related to dropping:

CPSC Case #: 
TOOK *** OUT OF MICROWAVE AND IT SHATTERED / CUT FOREARM DX: L FOREARM LAC.

CPSC Case #:  50643960
PT POURING HOT PASTA INTO HOT *** GLASS PAN ON STOVE WHEN PAN SHATTERED. D: FOOT LACERATION.

However, we don’t know the following: were these glass containers made of Pyrex? If so, were the glass containers degraded from the kind of wear and tear that could lead to such shattering, such as having hairline cracks? Did the glassware spontaneously crack, or was there any unreported mistreatment? Were the specific pieces of glassware being used correctly?

Whatever the answers to these questions, there appears to be no empirical data showing that Pyrex is at risk from exploding, a fact that should have given FOX in Philly pause for thought before sounding an alarm.

Betrayed or misused?
There is also a compelling and obvious explanation for why the Pyrex may have shattered: it is not shatterproof. You may be able to take it from freezer to oven, but the oven must be preheated. A cold dish put in a cold oven will be subjected to extreme temperature spikes as the heat is cranked up to cooking temperature. This puts stress on the glass, which can result in cracking or shattering.

In fact, as World Kitchen notes, there are numerous ways of mistreating Pyrex:

NEVER USE ON TOP OF STOVE, under a broiler, in a toaster oven, or place over oven vent or pilot light.
• AVOID SEVERE TEMPERATURE CHANGES.
• DO NOT add liquid to hot dish, place hot dish or glass cover in sink, immerse in water or place on cold or wet surfaces.  Handle hot ovenware and glass covers with dry potholders.
• DO NOT use in microwave to hold or support popcorn bags, microwave convenience foods with special browning wrappers, etc.
• DO NOT use to pop corn, caramelize sugar, or deep fat fry.
• DO NOT overheat oil or butter in microwave.  Use minimum amount of cooking time.
• DO NOT use or repair any item that is chipped, cracked, or noticeably scratched.

Nothing in the FOX story suggested that the reporter had systematically ruled out these factors in the cases reported or alluded to. Instead, and with no basis in national safety and injury data, the report conveyed the message that using Pyrex was tantamount to dicing with death – “Russian Roulette” – or liable to lead to severe injury such as fourth degree burns (meaning potential damage to muscle, tendon and bone, and requiring a skin graft). Outrageous? Uh-huh. Irresponsible? Yes. Unfair? That too – and since when was it acceptable to report injuries phoned in by complete strangers?

FOX did, however, take the report down; but as we saw with Teflon, which was reported as containing PFOA, a possible carcinogen (when, in fact, there was no real-world way of inhaling, ingesting or imbibing the miniscule amount of PFOA in a Teflon coated product), lousy journalism has a way of propagating itself across the Internet. Stay tuned, the shock from a lacerated roast in Philadelphia may yet be felt around the nation.

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