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A defect on tires has links to China

Imported valve stems may cause tires to fail. One recall issued; a US agency is investigating.

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Poisonous pet food. Lead paint on children's toys. The latest potentially defective Chinese import to hit American shores: tire-valve stems, the rubber shafts that allow motorists to fill their tires with air.

There are at least 36 million of the imported valve stems on tires on American roads. Any of them could cause dangerous tire failures this summer.

Already, a lawsuit has blamed a defective tire-valve stem for a crash that killed a Florida driver. One US importer issued a formal recall this month; another alerted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which has begun an investigation. Earlier this month, the federal agency issued an advisory to motorists to check their tires for wear but said nothing about valve stems.

Most of the valves in question, which are said to crack prematurely, appear to be on tires sold between September 2006 and June 2007.

The extent of the problem won't be known until NHTSA completes its investigation, says an agency spokesman. But some independent safety experts say motorists should be warned to inspect the tire-valve stems immediately.

"The company [that imported most of the tires] has issued a technical bulletin, but nobody seems to know about it," says Sean Kane, an auto-safety consultant with Safety Research & Strategies in Rehoboth, Mass., which issued its own public warning Thursday. "We need to know because the public is entering the high-risk summer season, and this is a real problem that potentially affects millions of vehicles."

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