by Sally Greenberg
In my years working as product safety counsel for Consumers Union, I spent a lot of time trying to improve product safety for consumers, especially kids. This week both the US House of Representatives and the US Senate supported truly historic reforms – reforms that seemed like mere pipe dreams only a few years ago. The bill, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, awaits the President’s signature.
One thing I have learned over the years, as well, is that a product safety crisis – like the one in 2000 when we learned that thousands of Firestone Tires were defective and separated off of (mostly) Ford Explorer at high speeds, killing hundreds of drivers and passengers – or the presence of excessive levels of lead in the toys our children are playing with – is a wakeup call for legislators and consumers alike. These crises can open the door to more close look at the laws that affect safety and ways to improve them.
To the credit of my fellow consumer advocates and members of congress from both parties, they rolled up their sleeves and worked together for reforms. The catalyzing event was high lead levels in toys discovered over the past two years - that opened the door to scrutiny of the federal agency charged with keeping our products safe, the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Traditionally underfunded and under the radar screen, the CPSC was operating with half the employees it began with in the mid-1970s while the number of consumer products had increased exponentially. Worthy of note, as well, were the comments by the top guy at the Toy Industry of America, who said the bill was “the right thing to do.”
Among the bill’s provisions, it will:
- Effectively ban lead from children’s toys, a position NCL has long endorsed. Lead is a proven toxin for children’s development and can do lifelong damage. No object intended for use by children should contain anything but the most minute amounts of lead.
- Require toymakers to have independent labs to test products before they are sold; many consumers assumed this was happening already, but instead, too many toys and products intended for children were introduced into the marketplace without proper testing and analysis Consumers may eventually see labels certifying toys have been tested before being sold, and consumers buying online or through a catalog will be able to see the same warning label that appears on packaging to warn parents of small parts or other potential hazards.
- Allow the CPSC to post information about products that have consumers have reported to the agency as being dangerous or defective; other federal agencies allow consumers to go to their websites to check on products before they purchase them. A provision of CPSC’s law prevented it from posting this information until the agency checked in with the manufacturer. That will change under the new law.
- State attorneys general will have the authority to help enforce federal product safety laws and take manufacturers to court to keep dangerous products off the market.
- This beleaguered agency will finally get the funding it needs to carry out its many and growing responsibilities. The CPSC budget will nearly double to $136 million, from $80 million for this fiscal year; the agency has already hired additional inspectors for the nation's largest ports, where dangerous imports can enter the country currently unnoticed because of weak enforcement.
Finally, while at Consumers Union I had the honor of working with Linda Ginzel and Boaz Keysar after their toddler son died in a recalled and defective portable crib that killed other children as well. They have been heroic in their fight for safer kids’ products and better regulations to protect them. I am so happy that after many years of working to get these reforms into the Consumer Product Safety Act, there will finally be a requirement for mandatory standards and testing for specific infant and toddler products, we will see a ban on the sale, lease or use in commercial settings of cribs that do not meet current safety standards, and product registration cards will be required with new products to facilitate notice of recalled products.
The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 includes many of the proposals consumer groups have worked to get enacted for a decade. It took a wake-up call like high levels of lead in toys to get Congress’ attention to the sad state of product safety regulation – and hats off to the members and their staffs in both parties for their support - but with the enactment of this bill we will see a far better safety environment, and most important, vastly safer toys and products for the most precious and vulnerable consumers, our kids.