Series in which Sophie Raworth reveals how household products are tested, putting the makers' claims on trial and showing how to get the best value for money.
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Take a look around your home.
Can you be sure every appliance is safe?
Is everything a company tells you about a product true?
And are you getting the best value for your money?
With the help of the country's top experts
we're going to see what it takes
to test the household products we use every day.
We'll discover how they're pushed to their limits.
We'll put the makers' claims on trial.
And show you how to make your money go further.
You'll find these products in any ordinary house.
But this is no ordinary house.
And no ordinary street.
This is the Watchdog Test House.
Hello, we're deep inside one of Britain's leading science centres.
Here at the Building Research Establishment
some of the products and materials that we use every day are put to the test.
To make sure that they are safe, environmentally friendly,
and that they don't fall apart.
Coming up on today's programme'
Thinking of leaving your appliances on overnight?
I do believe that we could have easily been killed that night.
The experts working behind the scenes to investigate the causes
of domestic fires AND ways to prevent them.
This is when the room starts to develop to flashover, when a fire in a room becomes a room on fire.
See-through packaging and elaborate names - just a few of the tricks
supermarkets use to encourage you to buy their products.
But do they really work?
I'm a big fan of actually being able to see what I'm actually going to buy, and these look nice.
And the hidden chemicals that caused allergic reactions.
It felt like 50% of my body was burnt.
Thousands of fires were caused last year by faulty household appliances
like dishwashers and washing machines.
The advice? Don't turn them on before you go to bed
or when you leave the house. It may sound extreme.
Until you find out just how hazardous they CAN be.
On 6th July, 2012, Martin Squires was at home with his wife and three children.
I'd just been to check on my five-year-old son
and, on returning back to the room,
I thought I'd just pop into the kitchen for a glass of water.
Now, I'm glad I did at that point, because the dishwasher was
making a strange noise and I looked round and saw a slight bit of smoke
coming out from the control panel followed by a burst of flames.
His dishwasher was on fire.
Luckily, Martin got to the plug in time and managed to switch it off.
I grabbed hold of the door and wafted it, to extinguish the flames.
The room was just filled with a black, acrid smoke which affected
all of us in the house, we were coughing, we had to open all the windows.
If it hadn't been for Martin's quick actions, the consequences could have been much more serious.
Sometimes we would put the dishwasher on just before going to bed.
If that had been the case, I do believe that we could have easily
been killed that night.
So what was it that went so horribly wrong?
Well, as a qualified electrician, Martin was able to investigate the source of the fire himself.
I realised it was an internal component on a PCB.
Basically, on the dishwasher, this controls all the programmes - that was over heating and
catching fire. Now, that shouldn't be happening.
No, it shouldn't. The company agreed and recalled the appliance. But it took them nine months.
Although Martin had identified the fault with his dishwasher,
the company needed to look into whether this was a one-off fault,
or actually a design fault.
So what happens when a faulty kitchen appliance causes a fire that destroys a whole kitchen?
How does a manufacturer begin to investigate that?
Well, they may turn to this man, Peter Mansi, of Fire Investigations UK,
an independent company specialising in investigating the causes of fire.
Our remit is to identify the true causes of fires.
Until we know that, we can't put prevention methods in place
to stop them happening again.
Whether it's to work with the manufacturer,
to perhaps promote a recall notice,
or even a redesign of an appliance
and to share that with the public at large
to make it a safer environment for everybody.
Later, we'll be finding out just how they do this
here at the Building Research Establishment.
And if you're not yet convinced of the risks of leaving your dishwasher unattended,
you'd better keep watching.
We spend an impressive £1,500,000 on our food shopping every week.
It's big business, which is why our every move between the aisles
has been carefully studied, to try and discover the secrets of what we buy, and why.
And companies certainly put what they learn to good use, turning it into marketing tricks and techniques
that influence how we shop, without us ever realising.
Ah. Yes, Sophie, the weekly shop.
Whether it's a quick dash in for the essentials or a big trip to
buy the family groceries, you might think that what we choose to put into our baskets
is entirely up to us.
But you'd be wrong.
So when consumers are out shopping, they use lots of intuition,
lots of emotions,
and retailers are really trying to tap into those
mental short cuts that people have, that consumers have,
and really what they're trying to do is increase perceptions of quality
or perceptions of taste of products by tapping in to those mental short cuts.
So, we're going to reveal how they do it, why they do it and whether we REALLY fall for it.
Taking price out of the equation, the key battle ground for quality
and trust is not necessarily what's in the product, but what's on
the outside - the packaging.
So, for our test, we're going to be designing our own.
One of the recent trends in packaging is transparent packaging,
the ability for consumers to actually see the product.
This is a really effective way of influencing consumers simply because
when they're able to see the product they're able to actually imagine
either tasting or using that product.
So that's exactly what we're going to do with our first product.
Although these two packets of biscuits look very similar,
we're giving one of them a window, so shoppers can see the biscuits on the inside.
Now, what happens when people pass these sorts of packaging
is that they barely noticing the non see-through one, but they are much
more likely to stop on the see-through packaging.
Next, how the product is described - cue our version of a convenience lasagne.
More and more, retailers will use very specific language to describe products.
This could be things like "home-made", like "premium", or "luxury".
These sorts of words trigger positive memories,
positive associations, which again are related to quality.
So this simple beef lasagne becomes
"Luxury Select Beef Lasagne,
"with a rich tomato ragu and a creamy bechamel sauce."
But why stop there?
Another interesting element that retailers use on packaging is sense of place,
the origins of the product. It could be things like
Italian home-made or authentic Indian or from a Scottish farm, for instance,
so that particular sense of place gives an authenticity to the product
and perceptions of quality of that product and therefore consumers are more likely to choose it, as well.
So, for our final product, we're transforming a simple pork sausage
into one from a rural idyll of Cottage Lane Farm.
And where is that, you might ask?
Well, it doesn't exist. We've made it up.
Just like Marks and Spencer's did with their Lochmuir Salmon.
It may hint at a classic Scottish lake, but there's no such place
And although Oakham, Marks and Spencer's chicken brand, is a real place,
not all the chicken packaged as such comes from there.
The same is true of Willow Farm, from Tesco.
Even though it's not real, consumers are unaware of this
and they will still associate the same type of quality and the same type
of trustworthiness as the real places.
And it's perfectly legal. Supermarkets CAN invent a place like this for marketing purposes.
Tesco says they use British chickens from a number of different farms, one of which is called Willow Farm.
Marks and Spencer's told us that Oakham chickens come from UK farms
with both the name of the farmer and the county where the bird has been
reared listed on the pack.
They add that all Lochmuir fish sold is Scottish and on most products
they also list the name of the loch where it is sourced.
I would be very surprised that Lochmuir's not a real place, what have they put it on there for?
If the chicken is not from Oakham, why do you use this name?
So, we've now seen some of the techniques we're exposed to every time we go shopping.
What we really want to know is how effective they are.
So we're going to put our specially designed products through their
paces with a group of volunteer shoppers - will the psychology work
on them? Find out later.
Now, chemicals are all around us. And it's a difficult area to control and regulate.
From cosmetics to sofas, it seems you never quite know where the next allergic reaction could come from.
At least, that's what we've discovered on Watchdog. Here's Lynn Faulds Wood.
'Welcome to Watchdog. In tonight's programme, all these people have written to us.'
'With the new Lemon Fresh Fairy, you've got all the sense of Fairy, all the scent of lemon.'
Fairy liquid - over the years the ads told us it was mild and green.
But as Watchdog discovered in 1996,
the later, lemon versions could cause severe allergic reactions.
It's like a burning feeling, at times. When I put my hand
in cold water, it cools it down, but when I put my hand in hot water,
it really burns again.
Lemon Fairy had an acidity about it which was great for dishes,
but according to some viewers, it could be painful for hands.
After that first report, Watchdog heard from many more of you.
In fact, over 200 people got in touch about old and new versions of Lemon Fairy.
After Watchdog took sufferers to try to meet him,
the dermatologist advising Fairy's parent company, Procter and Gamble,
finally admitted that hundreds more could be affected.
I would reckon about 6% of our population are sensitive
to the kind of damage that fat extraction by a detergent can do to their skin.
The tests we have done seem to show that it is less damaging to hands than other people's products.
As a result of Watchdog's campaign, Fairy and other manufacturers put
warning labels for people with sensitive skin on the back of their products.
Fairy say their formula has been scientifically proven to be safe,
so no change was made to the formulation, although over time,
improvements have been made.
But nine years later, Watchdog was encountering worse problems with hair dyes.
The pictures you've sent us are not a pretty sight.
This is Keely Not, before she dyed her hair.
This is the horror picture afterwards.
This is Lara Danson before dying her hair.
Here's what happened.
They were all reacting to a chemical called PPD.
PD is a toxic chemical found in black rubber, photocopy ink and petrol.
It's also found in most modern hair dyes,
at the hairdressers and in home kits.
Yes, a toxic chemical that companies weren't making a big effort to warn people about.
Following Watchdog's reports, manufacturers did agree to put bigger warnings on packs.
But why do these problems keep happening?
The prime culprits are the preservatives,
the fragrance chemicals and the hair dyes.
All powerful chemicals, that for some products, manufacturers say they can't do without.
The trick is to keep exposure to problematic substances as low as
possible, so that they are effective
in whatever role they have,
but, at the same time, minimising the risk to the consumer.
But there are some chemicals that cause reactions that CAN be removed.
And it would take Watchdog to make that happen, too.
In 2013, over 150 viewers contacted Watchdog
to complain about reactions they'd suffered after using Piz Buin.
Sophie Holmes used the cream for the first time on her face while skiing.
It got worse and worse and started to swell on my face and neck.
So I went straight to A&E in London.
They prescribed me with steroids, to reduce the swelling, because there
was a worry it was restricting my airways and could become fatal.
She was allergic to a chemical known as Methylisothiazolinone, otherwise known as MI.
It turned out dermatologists were seeing far more people
with allergies to MI than would ordinarily be acceptable.
Allergy to it is now at epidemic proportions in the United Kingdom,
such that, at the present time, about 10% of patients
we investigate are now allergic to Methylisothiazolinone.
After Watchdog investigated, the owners of Piz Buin, Johnson and Johnson, announced MI would be
removed from the formula.
Other brands followed suit.
Now, you might be careful about what you put on your skin,
especially after seeing stories like that,
yet one of our more shocking cases of chemicals causing reactions
came from a completely-unexpected source.
In 2008, the programme investigated complaints about sofas
giving people severe rashes.
The sofas were bought at three high street stores,
but made by a Chinese company.
I came out in an awful, awful rash, with huge blisters,
and it was very painful and sore.
It felt like... 50% of my body was burnt.
Tracey was in and out of hospital for six months,
going through surgical biopsies, morphine and low-level chemotherapy.
When she got home, she'd just collapse on the sofa,
exhausted by the pain.
Tracey finally worked out she was actually reacting
to something in her sofa.
Her problem cleared up when she got rid of it.
As Watchdog revealed, the cause was a small sachet of fungicide,
put in to protect the fabric.
It should never have been in the sofa in the first place.
This might amaze you... There are currently controls
on some 30,000 ingredients and even more that are banned.
So whether it's in sofas or sun creams, we may not know
where the next potentially-harmful chemical will appear.
What we do know is, thanks to the regulators,
the products we use today are much safer.
Now, kettles - you can spend as little as £5 or as much as £195.
They all boil hot water, so why IS there such a price range?
Is it all in the look
or do some justify a higher price tag for performance?
Well, a man who has tested all kinds of kettles on the market
is Richard Headland, from Which?
Now, nice cup of tea here, made with a £5 kettle.
If we'd spent £195 on our kettle, would it have made much difference?
Chances are, Sophie,
it wouldn't have made much difference to the end result.
We've still got a cup of tea, but what you may want to consider is how
quickly your kettle is going to boil. The slowest kettles in our test
take around two minutes slower to boil a litre of water
than the fastest ones. So, a big difference.
There's also a big difference in noise.
That's a big bug-bear people have.
If you spend more money on your kettle, will that mean
-your kettle will last longer?
You find some cheaper brands that last for ages.
You find some expensive brands that don't last so long.
Ultimately, a kettle is going to give up on you at some point -
the element's going to fail.
I wouldn't spend more if you're looking for durability.
If you want to save money on energy bills,
you should think about how much you are filling your kettle,
-because it does make a difference?
-That's probably the thing
that will make the biggest difference to your energy bills.
So, if you are boiling, say, a litre of water, which is about
enough for four cups of tea, doing that five times a day,
over a year, that's going to cost you more than £31.
If you were just boiling enough for one cup of tea,
that would cost you around £10 over the year, so quite a big difference.
One thing to remember is, very often,
you're paying a higher price simply for the look -
-for the style, for the elegance, perhaps?
There's no reason why you can't spend £10 or less
for an own-brand kettle. Indeed, in our tests,
there are loads of best buys for, sort of, £20 upwards,
-so well worth considering.
-Richard, thank you.
Earlier, we saw some of the methods manufacturers use
to try to influence what we buy.
So we've designed our own packaging and set up our own supermarket,
to see if those marketing tricks really work.
Now, all we need are some customers.
Yes, Sophie, and here they are -
eight randomly-selected supermarket shoppers -
to whom we've given a simple shopping list of items to buy.
Our shop is stocked up with two choices for each
of the shopping items on the list,
including the three products that have had our shopping psychology
treatment - the biscuits with the see-through versus closed packets,
our elaborately-described versus simple lasagne
and our standard versus Cottage Lane Farm sausages.
Will our volunteers be influenced by our sneaky packaging?
First up, our biscuits.
I'm a big fan of actually being able to see what I'm going to buy
and these, they look nice.
I like it when I see it, cos then I get what I expect.
I'm going to go for these ones. It's just like a try before you buy -
if you see it, you're more likely to buy it.
An impressive seven out of eight plumped for the product
that had the biscuits on display. So, no surprise there.
When our volunteers see these packages,
when they see the see-through packaging in particular,
they are likely to have a chemical reaction.
The chemical dopamine is likely to be released,
which kind of triggers this sort of reward and pleasure system,
which we will feel when we actually eat the product,
so they're simulating eating
when they're actually seeing that particular product.
What about our ready meal?
Which is the most likely to make the dining table?
Remember, one of these isn't just beef lasagne,
it's a luxury beef lasagne with a rich ragu and creamy bechamel sauce.
So, that sounds very, very good. It's luxury.
OK, they look pretty similar but I do like the lingo on that.
This time, five out of eight went for our more descriptive version.
Now, I was, of course, expecting this to happen,
but it really never ceases to surprise me how small changes
to the packaging, such as words, can have such a big effect on consumers.
And finally, our mythical farm sausage also came out on top,
with six out of eight opting for the Cottage Lane version.
Cottage Lane, I will choose the Cottage Lane.
It's, basically, showing me where my product has been sourced from
and it's got a picture of the farm here.
The pigs are going there on the farm and not in a factory.
I'm assuming that if the pigs came from this lovely place
then they probably taste nice, too.
So it's clear, we're all open to the influence of the supermarket
tricks, whether we realise it or not. Even Gorkan, it seems.
What never really ceases to surprise me is the fact that
I know all this stuff and yet I'm still influenced by it.
'I simply cannot control it myself.'
It's very difficult to do anything about them.
Back now to dishwashers and earlier we heard how household
appliances were responsible for thousands of fires last year.
Well, here at the Building Research Establishment
teams of specialists are working hard to find out what causes
such fires and how to prevent them.
This is their fire testing facility, the largest of its kind in Europe.
They work alongside Fire Investigations UK to provide
vital information once a fire has happened.
It can be crucial evidence that can save lives.
Our remit is to identify the origin of the fire,
where a fire started and what caused the fire.
'When we do a full-scale reconstruction it's to replicate
'how that fire developed in the real circumstances'
and that's what we're going to try and show you here today.
They need to rig this dishwasher with a simple fault,
something that could occur on any machine.
'When appliances are moved around a lot,
'perhaps if they've moved from one property to another and
'they haven't been handled carefully, you could get a loose connection.'
If you don't have a tight connection on some of these high energy
electrical conductors, it will create resistance at that point
and it will start to glow, like a small electric heater.
'If there's plastic around it then it can ignite the plastic
'or any other combustible material.'
When they do catch fire then there's normally quite a serious consequence.
The kitchen is constructed ready for the fire
and Peter replicates the loose connection fault on our dishwasher.
Everything is set for the reconstruction.
Let the fire commence.
Five, four, three, two, one.
So here we're simulating a fault within the dishwasher,
for instance a bad connection, which would result in resistance heating.
The electrical connection heats up
and ignites the plastic within the appliance.
A pilot flame is created and the dishwasher is now on fire.
We're a minute in and there's enough smoke
to activate the smoke detector.
SMOKE DETECTOR BLEEPS
We can now see the fire has actually taken hold of the appliance
and it will start to spread to the timber cabinets next door to it.
As the fire develops, the plastic drips onto the floor.
If this were a real fire in a real kitchen the wooden or lino floor
would also go up in flames.
The flames are now starting to reach up into the smoke layer.
You can see the cabinets either side of the dishwasher are starting to
ignite and we're now getting a more rapidly developing fire.
In less than 25 minutes, the temperature on the ceiling
The burning cupboards and the worktop are adding fuel to the fire.
And this is when a room starts to develop to flashover,
when the fire in a room becomes a room on fire.
And everything in the room will ignite.
One minute later, almost everything in the room is on fire.
In a real house, with added furnishings, the fire would
reach this intensity even faster.
'And we can see flames developing along the ceiling
'and the radiated heat is quite intolerable.'
OK, thanks for your help.
The fire is extinguished before it becomes uncontrollable.
'So here we can see the aftermath of what is a relatively small
'and contained fire in a kitchen
'and we can see the devastation that this has caused, and the smoke
'damage would be 100% throughout the property by this stage.'
Fire reconstructions like this are key to understanding how
fires develop, but Fire Investigations UK also attend
the aftermath of real fires, to determine the cause and origin.
So a second fire investigator, John Galvin, is going to take
a look at our burnt-out kitchen, to show us just how it's done.
Now, in this particular room, we can see that the most damaged area
is the far side and we can see on that particular wall,
we have flame impingement and that is an indicator for us that that
area was severely affected by the fire whilst it was in progress.
John is particularly interested in the appliances on the left-hand
side of the kitchen.
'I can see from here, a kettle, a toaster
'and there appears to be some measuring scales at the end.'
Could they actually be part of the cause of this fire?
If this had been a real fire, every appliance in the room would be
examined to determine whether it had been switched on at the time.
If not, it would be eliminated as a potential cause,
but John has already found another clue.
The table has scorching on the side facing what
we believe to be the area of origin.
Additionally we have some shadowing on one of the chairs under the table,
-which shows an area protected by the table leg.
-Getting warmer, John.
So all the data we've gathered so far are pointing us
towards this appliance.
So, if I just pop the door open.
What I can see now is that the internal surfaces of this
particular appliance are very heavily coated with smoke deposits.
There's also none of the plastic internal components remaining,
so we can say that this particular appliance has suffered
greatly during this fire.
John quickly suspects that the dishwasher did start the fire.
Next, it would go to the lab, to confirm if he was right.
'Fire investigation gets to the bottom of why fires occur'
and by feeding that information back to the manufacturers we try
'and prevent such things happening again in the future.
'If things happen time and time again and we identify a pattern,'
we may be able to persuade the manufacturer to actually do
a recall or certainly alert members of the public to the
potential of a problem with a particular device.
If you want more information on the safety of products
in your home, you can go to our website.
That's all for today. Thanks for watching.
Series in which Sophie Raworth reveals how household products are tested, putting the makers' claims on trial and showing how to get the best value for money. Lynn Faulds Wood looks at the safety of products in the home and the Watchdog campaigns that have been saving lives for more than 30 years.