CPSC Would Get More Money, Power Under Tough Product Safety Bill Approved by Senate

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) will have a bigger budget and more authority if a product safety bill passed by the Senate becomes law.  Yesterday, the Senate approved the broadest changes to the nation’s product safety system in a generation, responding to recalls of millions of lead-tainted toys last year.  Lawmakers have yet to resolve important differences between the Senate bill and a similar measure that passed the House in December. The Senate version—which passed by a vote of 79 to 13—is considered by consumer advocates to be tougher, but both bills do contain provisions that would require retailers and manufacturers to be more vigilant about product safety.

The biggest change will be a better-staffed CPSC with greater enforcement power.  Also, both bills increase agency funding.  In fiscal year 2007, the agency had a budget of $63 million and under 400 employees, fewer than half the number from 1980.  The Senate bill increases the budget to $106 million by 2011; the House’s to $100 million.  Both provide funding to upgrade the CPSC’s outdated testing facilities and raise the cap the CPSC can fine companies that fail to report product hazards immediately.  Today, fines are capped at $1.8 million.  The House bill raised that to $10 million; the Senate to $20 million.  The Senate and House bills also effectively ban lead in all children’s products, not just toys, and require toys to be tested by independent labs.

“I’m glad something is going to change. I just hope future families don’t have to go through what we had to go through,” said Andrew Hartung of Manalapan, NJ.  His 14-month-old daughter, Abigail, was injured last fall in a Bassettbaby crib that was later recalled.  The bill’s sponsor, Senator Mark Pryor (Democrat-Arkansas), said, “The vote is a victory for the health and safety of children.”

There are some remaining differences involving which federal safety laws state attorneys general could enforce, whether to grant whistle-blower protection to corporate employees, and which information would be included in a public database of product-safety incidents. The White House and the nation’s largest manufacturers oppose giving state attorneys general too much freedom to interpret federal safety regulations and oppose whistle-blower protection, which they claim would encourage needless litigation.  So far, the president has not threatened a veto.

Over the past decade, consumer and environmental groups had been finding lead in children’s products.  It took until a boy died in 2006 from swallowing a metal charm made of lead that the CPSC began examining lead in children’s jewelry.  And, until last year, the CPSC did not receive much notice from lawmakers, despite regular testimony by consumer advocates about problems at the agency.  Pleas from industry also went unanswered.  Finally, last March, an unfortunate barrage of toothpaste, tire, and pet food recalls involving contaminated ingredients from China, prompted US consumers to question product safety.  Then popular toys were found to contain lead paint, a toxic substance consumers believed had been banished from toys in the 1970s.  “It wasn’t until some of these recalls began to happen relating to standards that had been in place for many years that we realized the system needed to be strengthened,” said Toy Industry Association President Carter Keithley.

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