Plugin, Burn Out

Glade “Plugins” — small fragrance dispensers that run off of electricity — are being blamed for countless house fires in a newly-circulated e-mail. It’s also generating plenty of grassroots comments from people who say they — or someone they know — have had problems with the product.

According to the e-mail — told by a friend of a friend, with no verifiable facts — the”Plug-ins” overheat, melt and then cause a fire. While Glade Plugins have been recalled in the past because of a possible fire hazard stemming from production problems, there’s no direct evidence that these devices do cause fires.

That having been said, ever since I posted this write-up to Nuketown, I’ve received a numerous e-mails from people saying that this is, in fact, a very real problem. One person said a Plug-in burned down her neighbors house, and sent me photos of the burned socket … but no verifiable report from a fire marshal. Another person told me she’d heard from an insurance agent that these things were causing hundreds of fires; when I asked for this agent’s contact information to verify the story, the reader said the agent had told her she couldn’t comment on the story. And then finally, I received a message from yet another reader pointing to Plug-in feedback posted to a Web site that had the product causing a fire after a blanket fell on top of it. I’m working on checking that one out.

Here’s the original message:

Date Captured: 7/3/2004
I received this from an e-mail friend – something to think about. I
just HAD to pass this on to everyone.

A friend of mine sent this to me.

My brother and his wife learned a hard lesson this last week. Their
house burned down…nothing left but ashes. They have good insurance,
so the home will be replaced and most of the contents. That is the good news. However, they were sick when they found out the cause of the fire.

The insurance investigator sifted through the ashes for several hours.
He had the cause of the fire traced to the master bathroom. He asked my
sister-in-law what she had plugged in in the bathroom. She listed the
normal things….curling iron, blow dryer. He kept saying to her , “No,
this would be something that would disintegrate at high temperatures.”
Then, my sister-in-law remembered she had a Glade Plug-in in the
bathroom. The investigator had one of those “Aha” moments. He said that
was the cause of the fire. He said he has seen more home fires started
with the plug in type room fresheners than anything else. He said the
plastic they are made from is a THIN plastic. He said in every case
there was nothing left to prove that it even existed. When the
investigator looked in the wall plug, the two prongs left from the
plug-in were still in there.

My sister-in-law had one of the plug-ins that had a small night light
built in it. She said she had noticed that the light would dim….and
then finally go out. She would walk in a few hours later, and the light
would be back on again The investigator said that the unit was getting
too hot, and would dim and go out rather than just blow the light bulb.
Once it cooled down, it would come back on. That is a warning sign. The
investigator said he personally wouldn’t have any type of plug in
fragrance device anywhere in his house. He has seen too many burned
down homes.

Thought I would warn you all.

Ah, the unverifiable consumer scare mail — it’s such a classic. This e-mail claims that numerous fires have been started by this product, but fails to include a single fact to back it up — not the name of the anonymous fire inspector, not the “sister-in-law” whose house burnt down, nothing.

That leaves us with nothing more than an unattributed antecdote, which makes verifying or debunking such claims difficult. To begin my search, I headed to the home page for Plug-ins, thinking that if the threat were real, Glade might have recall information up on their site (and if houses were burning down left and right, you’d expect some sort of recall).

Glade’s site does mention this phenomenon, but only to say that to the best of their knowledge, it doesn’t exist. According to Glade, they’ve never been contacted by anyone who’s house burned down because of a plug in. They’ve worked with the Consumer Product Safety Commission to investigate the claims, and found nothing. Read their statement for yourself (you’ll need to scroll down to “Plugins” — it’s part of a longer FAQ).

I checked with the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s web site, but the the federal agency had no record of such fires. The closest I came to that was a 2002 press releaseannouncing that Glade was volunteerily recalling a certain kind of plugin because production errors made them a possible fire hazard. However, there was no mention these products actually causing a fire — it was a precautionary move and a voluntary recall.

According to’s excellent research however, there was another voluntary recall between 1992 and 1994 based on similar concerns. In that case, there were several hundred complaints, and a dozen allegations that they’d been involved in fires.

In searching on the Web, I was not able to find any specific incidents where a Plugin caused a fire; the best I got was allegations. This trend continues with the various messages I’ve received from people; lots of allegations, very little in the way of verifiable fact.

Despite my personal biases, I am not blind to the fact that some businesses have covered up flaws in their products, and there is the possibility that Glade isn’t being upfront about this problem. But why would they do that? They already recalled this product twice; if they know it’s a problem (and thus, probably open themselves up to all sorts of liability) why not do it again? Yes, a fear of torpedoing the product’s sales could drive such a cover-up, but given the company’s past recalls, I’m skeptical. It is just as likely, to my mind, that people are misinterpreting what they’re being told about these things.
Take the case of a firefighter walking through the ruins of a building. He sees the plug-in, and says “ah ha, I’ve seen plenty of these things catch on fire.” But is he competent to make that statement? I’m not trying to demean firefighters in anyway, but he’s paid to put out fires — it’s the arson investigators and fire marshalls that ultimately determine the true cause of the fire. It is very possible that an electrical short in the socket actually caused the fire, not the plug-in. But is that something that could be revealed at a glance? I don’t know, but I’m guessing not.

Something else that bothers me about the grassroots commments about the problems with the Plug-ins is the scale being reported; several people have said that they were told by people in authority — insurance agents, firefighters, etc. — that the Plug-ins cause hundreds of fires a year. I find it hard to believe that such a widespread — and potentially destructive phenomenon — has not been picked up on by the mainstream media (these being the same people who happily when nuts over a story that laptops might cause infertilaty problems in men).
So what’s the final conclusion? Unfortunately, nothing definitive. Based on past history, it seems that Plug-ins — at least improperly manufactured ones — have the potential to start fires. At the same time though, there’s no evidence that modern, non-faulty ones are dangerous. When it comes right down to it, you’ll have to use your own judgement to make a decision on whether or not to use this product.

I’m continuing to research this, and will be contacting some experts to see if I can find anything to back up the claims, or debunk them once in for all. If anyone finds any evidence that does prove that Plugins are a fire hazard, please send it to me.

This article was revised to include reader comments on 2/16/2005

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