Concerns about Chinese-made lighters

More than two million disposable lighters are sold every day in the United States.

Many of them are made in China, and may have dangerous flaws. Sharyl Attkisson met one Texas family paying the price for one bad lighter.

One spring evening, Ricky Clemmer got a frantic call from his brother Bill -- and rushed to Bill's work at a nearby machine shop.

"From his waist up, he was just burnt up," Ricky said. "I mean black. He said, 'My cigarette lighter blew up.'"

Those were the last words the brothers ever exchanged. Bill was rushed to the hospital where he died 28 days later. His family was left to piece together what went wrong. Ricky demonstrated how his brother put himself out. "So Billy set himself on fire over here, and ran over there to put himself out. And then come back and called me. You know, how he managed to do that ....I haven't a clue how he managed to do that.

The Clemmer family hired experts to deconstruct Bill's accident. They concluded design flaws caused Bill's lighter to fail and produced an animation showing how. After Bill lit his cigarette, the lighter should have shut off. Instead, the experts say, a small flame continued to burn hidden under the flame guard. Fuel leaked out, evaporated into Bill's clothes, heated and caught fire.

One engineer hired by the Clemmer family provided his research video to CBS News. It shows disposable lighters malfunctioning. In the video, the flame continues to burn after it's supposed to go out.

A billion cheap disposable lighters are sold in the U.S. each year. Most, like Bill's, are from China. All those lighters, yet the U.S. has no mandatory safety standards as they do in Europe and Canada. Here, safety standards are voluntary, met by U.S. companies but not necessarily the foreign competition.

But there's something that makes Bill's story even more difficult. It turns out the very government agency that oversees lighter safety knew of the problem years before Bill ever put the lighter in his pocket.

In 2006, the Consumer Product Safety Commission concluded that 70 percent of Chinese lighters failed to live up to U.S. voluntary standards. And lighter malfunctions caused over 900 injuries each year.

Read the CPSC report

Yet, bogged down by bureaucratic hurdles and dangers it saw as more urgent, the Consumer Product Safety Commission took no action. Ricky didn't know about any of that-- until CBS News told him and showed him the report.

"I hadn't heard about that," Ricky said. "They had all the information and they just ignored it."

Nobody from the Consumer Product Safety Commission would agree to an interview with CBS News. In writing they told CBS News lighter safety is important, "Yet at this time, our hardworking staff is actively engaged in efforts to save lives and prevent injuries from...many other product dangers."

For now, unregulated lighters just like Bill's remain on store shelves. CBS affiliate KHOU recently found them on sale in the Houston area.

"Do your job," Ricky said of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. "If you're gonna make regulations and protect people make regulations to protect people and don't be half-hearted about it. You can't pay me for what happened to my brother. I'll have nightmares for the rest of my life thinking about this."

After CBS News affiliate KHOU contacted the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the agency announced an investigation into the Chinese firm that made Bill Clemmer's lighter. His family, meanwhile, sued that company and won. But because no one from the company responded to the lawsuit, the Clemmers have no way to collect.

  • Sharyl Attkisson On Twitter»

    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.