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Get the drop on dirty, used humifiers

Here we are in the thick of cold and flu season. We've got bleary eyes, chapped noses and pockets full of crumpled Kleenex. All we want is a cup of tea, a warm blanket and a blasting humidifier. Yet lately, for some bizarre reason, securing that crucial final component has posed a peculiar problem.

In the past week alone, I've heard four local cases of consumers bringing humidifiers home from the store only to find they don't work.

And that's not even the worst part. Upon closer inspection, it becomes obvious the humidifier has been (ICK!) used.

We're not talking about a used microwave or a used vacuum cleaner (though that could be kind of gross, too).

We're talking about a used humidifier! Something people use when they're sick and germy and pumping out pathogens like a bacteria factory. A device that, even in its most pristine form, has the ability to incubate mold and microorganisms like a petri dish.

What's the deal here? Are cash-strapped folks buying humidifiers to get through an illness, keeping them as long as they need them, then taking them back for a refund when they're done?

The devices are notoriously fussy, building up lime scale and clogging quickly if not cleaned regularly. Maybe folks aren't taking proper care of them, then returning them once they inevitably break? Not cool, people!

And what are used or broken personal items doing back on shelves anyways?

To crystalize matters, the latest recipient of one of these plagued appliances was my sister -- a germ phobe of the highest order. This is the woman who feared letting me take my niece on a trip to Florida. Not because we might disappear into the ocean or go down in a fiery plane crash, but because I might forget to put toilet paper on her seat in the airport bathroom. She makes Adrian Monk look like one of those mud-covered Woodstock hippies.

Stuck home with her sick daughter, her husband stopped at Wal-Mart after work (the only nearby place open that late) and picked up a ReliOn humidifier.

There it was, with water spots on the clear plastic reservoir, swipe marks where someone had wiped it down and -- grodiest of all -- greasy smears of inhalant on the medicine cup.

And there was her daughter, all sniffles and whimpers. She'd no sooner put the thing in her 4-year-old's bedroom than she would a rabid dog or that clown from Poltergeist.

Surely Wal-Mart would take it back upon reopening the next morning. But what good did it do that night, with a miserable kid and the pediatrician's words ringing in her ears, stressing the importance of humidity?
The moral of the story is this: Before you bring a humidifier or other personal item home, stop at the service desk and ask if you can open and inspect it on the spot. Wal-Mart representatives said they would never put a used humidifier back out for sale. But who can scrutinize a piece of equipment better than a concerned mom or dad?

And don't think it only happens there. The other three local cases occurred at Toys 'R' Us, CVS and Walgreens.

And those are just the ones we've heard about.


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