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as seen on phillyBurbs.com

More duct tales
Crime and red tape prevail.

I was only kidding back on Feb. 16 when I wrote that duct tape was the perfect tool for babysitting.

Two months later, I found myself revolted by the fact that Neil and Colleen Broe - honored last year for being model foster parents by Bucks County - were charged with using the tape to abuse their charges.

The pictures the police found are disgusting: Two children, ages 1 and 2, wrapped "mummy" tight with duct tape.

I won't play Columbo and tell you whodunnit. That's for the courts to figure out. But the incident did get me thinking seriously about how often duct tape is used in the commission of a crime.

We live in an age where gun manufacturers are being sued for the role their product plays in crime and accidents. There's even a national debate raging in Congress on whether the gun makers should be given blanket immunity.

How long until some eager-beaver lawyer opts to sue the tape manufacturer for the mental anguish of those two kids in the Broes' care, I wondered. And how many more cases like this are out there?

The first thing that came to mind was the abduction of 7-year-old Erica Pratt in Philadelphia last summer. The smart kid managed to escape by chewing her way through the duct tape binding her hands.

A few searches in Google later, I found the case of Jerry L. Welda, of Janesville, Wiscounsin. Police charged him last week for dunking the head of his girlfriend's daughter in dirty toilet water and then forcing her to stand in a corner with her mouth and wrists bound in duct tape.

Duct tape also played a crucial role in execution-style murders last year at a Dollar General Store near Daytona Beach, Florida. It's even been mentioned in evidence in higher profile cases such as the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey and the arrest of actor Robert Blake.

Given the mounting anecdotal evidence, you'd think authorities or the tape manufacturers might be tracking how this everyday household product is being misused as poor man's handcuffs or a gag.

You'd also be dead wrong.

The FBI gathers all kinds of statistics for its annual Uniform Crime Report, including how often guns and knives are used in crimes. An FBI spokeswoman said duct tape isn't on the agency's radar, but "it's an intriguing subject."

One of the crime report's writers agreed. While the FBI keeps tabs on the number of times Americans are murdered by suffocation each year, the department is clueless when it comes to the chief weapon in those cases. "From the records we look at, we wouldn't know if it's a pillow or duct tape over the face," she said.

Yet, the FBI has a white paper posted on its Web site on the best way to take latent fingerprints from the adhesive back of tape, which proved to be the key evidence that led to convictions in the Dollar General murders.

The leading trade association for the six major manufacturers of duct tape is so concerned about the misuse of their product, that it sent lab technicians to Quantico last week to train the FBI, according to Glen Anderson, executive vice president of the Pressure Sensitive Tape Council in Northbrook, Ill.

Although U.S. tape manufacturers distribute their product under multiple brand names, each manufacturer is easily identifiable by the molecular composition of the adhesive it leaves behind, Anderson said. Each manufacturer also has its own way of tracking how its product is shipped.

However, Anderson said the industry has no interest in tracking the number of times the product is used in crimes.

"We don't think that the usage is of that nature that it merits tracking," he sid. "It's the media that's distorting it. It's sad that people have found it of assistance in the commission of a crime. But, a firearm is different. They're manufactured to maim and kill. Tape isn't. It's designed to bind. We're like a screwdriver used by carpenters."

GO AGAINST THE GRAIN

If you ever find yourself tied up with duct tape like Erica Pratt did last summer, there's a way out.

"Don't stretch it," advised Glen Anderson, of the Pressure Sensitive Tape Council. "Duct tape is adhesive tied to a cloth fiber. You can tear it. With the slightest cut against the grain, it just pulls right apart."

DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME

My previous column on duct tape was prompted by the Department of Homeland Defense's call for using it and plastic to protect yourself at home in case of a chemical or biological attack.

The result - retailers couldn't keep duct tape on their shelves, with manufacturers reporting dramatic jumps in demand for about 10 days. Sales have since slipped back down to normal levels, Anderson said.

For that, he's thankful. Anderson said at the height of the duct tape craze, he appeared in 17 different media outlets, including TV news channels and newspapers, railing against the idea.

"Duct tape creates a very strong bond," he said. "If one would seal themselves in a bathroom, let's say, they wouldn't have to worry about the biological or chemical attack, they'll suffocate."

It's already happened. According to the Associated Press, five people died in Israel in March in two separate incidents two weeks apart.

A mother and her two teen-age sons suffocated on March 17 in a sealed room they had prepared in case of a possible Iraqi chemical missile attack. In the second case, two elderly Israeli Arab sisters were found dead March 31 in a room they had sealed. Police could not say for certain the sisters suffocated until a forensic examination was completed.

NEWS FLASH - DUCT TAPE CAN HOLD DUCTS

I was guilty of passing on a Web myth in that Feb. 16 column, by linking to a 1998 article on The Berkley Lab Web site that says duct tape simply won't work on air ducts.

"They regretted it," Anderson said, adding his council sued Berkley Labs and proved in court that duct tape is designed to hold flexible air ducts, like the silver hose sticking out of your clothes dryer.

He said the Council proved Berkley Labs used inferior duct tape to do the job, rather than the type that would normally be used in industry.

But the Council's court win was only half a victory, he said. Despite the ruling, the state of California has adopted a new construction standard for securing air ducts - one that calls for a tape with adhesive designed by Berkley Labs.

Dave Ralis' Pave The Grass column appears on Mondays. You can send him an e-mail at . To read his previous columns, click here.

May 26, 2003