How safe is second-hand stuff?

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” That’s the principle behind the market for used items — and why not earn some cash from from items you no longer want or take advantage of a great bargain? It’s also an environmentally-sound practice — those same items aren’t ending up in a landfill.

However, despite the appeals to our pocket book and “green” conscience, some items pose health and safety hazards. If you’re looking to buy or sell used items, here’s what you need to watch out for:*

Items to avoid or question

Cosmetics: Whether it’s a “beauty preparation” like make-up, skin creams and perfume, or a “grooming aid” like soap and shampoo, these products could be harbouring harmful bacteria that could cause a rash or infection. Important information such as ingredients, directions and warnings could also be missing.

Lawn darts: You may recall that lawn darts were banned in Canada and U.S. in the late 1980s, but since then the older, unsafe sets have been replaced with new “soft” versions. However, some people may have ordered parts and assembled their own sets, so take note that darts with elongated metal tips are still illegal to sell in Canada.

Protective sports equipment: The design of protective gear such as helmets and face protectors has improved a lot over the years. Health Canada advises against reselling helmets for cycling or rollerblading, as well as equestrian riding helmets. If you’re looking to buy or sell other used equipment, try going to a second hand consignment shop like Play it Again Sports where someone has the expertise to evaluate the items. You can also donate used equipment through programs in your community.

Appliances: Missing parts, unknown age, misuse and abuse make these risky items to buy. You may want to have a repairman take a look at any electric appliances before you use them at home. The Canada Safety Council warns that insurance may not cover damage caused by a fire resulting from an used appliance.

Window blinds: The pull chords can strangle a child. Health Canada notes that blinds and curtains with pull chords should not be sold unless they have a tension device on the looped pull cord and a device to prevent inner cords from being pulled out. There must also be a label with instructions to keep pull chords out of reach of children.

Items made from fabric: It may set you squirming, but bed bugs are becoming an increasingly common problem. Be careful buying items like clothing, bedding, blankets and used cloth furniture as they could be infested with these hardy creatures. (Bed bugs can live for surprisingly long periods of time without food.) Carefully inspect items before you buy, especially if they are items that can’t be easily cleaned. But beware: the sneaky critters like to hide in daylight and keep to snug holes and crevices. Look for signs of their eggs or droppings. (For more information, see our article on bed bugs).

Also, beware of items like hats, head gear, combs and hair accessories that could be harbouring lice. Be sure to wash and disinfect before using.

Risks for children

With the rate children outgrow items it’s not surprising that clothes, toys and furniture frequently show up for sale. While most clothing, toys and books safe, you should take a second look at these items:

Furniture: Cribs, playpens and other furniture must meet the latest safety requirements and regulations. Look for the manufacturer, model number, date, safety information and instructions. Worn parts and damaged or faulty mechanisms can cause an item to collapse, so inspect it carefully. As a general rule of thumb cribs made before 1986 are considered unsafe.

Baby walkers were banned in April 2004 and are illegal to sell. Anyone who still has one should destroy it before throwing it out so it cannot be used.

Strollers must have a lap belt and hand breaks. The wheels and locking mechanisms on folding models must be in good working order. Generally, strollers made before 1985 don’t meet current standards.

Car seats: The Canada Safety Council warns against buying car seats second hand because chances are they weren’t installed or used properly by their previous owners, and they may be missing essential installation instructions. Any seat over 10 years old is unsafe because the plastic components degrade over time.

Clothing: Loose-fitting sleepwear must be made out of a flame-resistant material like polyester or nylon, with cotton or cotton blends reserved for tight-fitting items only. Draw strings should also be removed because they can catch on playground equipment and fences.

Jewellery: Inexpensive children’s jewellery is often made with lead, which is highly toxic. Even a protective coating doesn’t make the item safe because it can easily wear off.

Toys: Watch out for loose parts that could be swallowed or choked on and sharp edges that could cause injury. There is also some question about lead content in paint, and toys with magnets are especially problematic due to the potential for internal injury if swallowed. It’s a good idea to check into recalls before buying or selling.

For detailed information about product safety requirements and what features to look for, take a look at the Consumer Product Safety: Children’s Products website.

The responsibility of the vendor

Whether through a garage sale, private sale, flea market or second hand store, sellers in Canada have a legal obligation to make sure the items they sell are safe and meet current safety standards. Furthermore, it is illegal to sell, give away or distribute items that do not meet the requirements of the Hazardous Products Act.

What does this mean if you want to sell an item? You need to make sure that what you’re selling is in legal and in good condition — or you could be held liable in a civil court of law. Unfortunately, not everyone is aware of the laws and regulations so there is no guarantee that items are safe simply because they are available. Whether you are buying or selling, here’s what you should look for:

– Look for any damaged or missing parts, sharp edges, cracks or chips. Items should be in good repair, and any folding or locking mechanisms should be fully functional.

– Make sure any available safety information is included with the product, including warnings, safety information and instructions for proper use and care. Warning labels should be intact and readable.

– Confirm that the product meets current regulations and has not extended its lifespan (set by the manufacturer).

– Check with the manufacturer about any recalls.

Where can you get more information?

There’s a wealth of information online for concerned consumers and diligent vendors. Here are some places to start:

– Vendors and consumers alike should read Facts for Garage Sale Vendors and Selling Second Hand Products for more information what shouldn’t be sold.

– The Consumer Product Recalls webpage has a searchable database of advisories, recalls and warnings. Also check with the manufacturer of the product if you have any doubts.

– If you have any questions about a particular item, Health Canada has a toll-free number at 1-866-662-0666. Other contact information can be found on the Contact Us section of the website.

Sources: Health Canada, Canada Safety Council