CPSC Would Get More Power, Funding Under Proposed Legislation

The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) might finally get some muscle if several US Senators get their way. Two lawmakers have introduced a bill that if passed would give the CPSC more tools to protect children from dangerous imported products.

The legislation comes amid calls for more restrictions on imports, especially those from China. Throughout the past year, a seemingly-endless parade of products from that country have been recalled for dangerous defects. Most alarmingly, a large number of dangerous toys made in China have been recalled due to lead paint and other hazards. Toy giant Mattel, Inc. has been hit with some of the largest recalls. On August 1, its Fisher-Price division recalled millions of lead-tainted Dora the Explorer, Spongebob Squarepants and Sesame Street toys. That recall was quickly followed by two other recalls for more lead painted toys, and for toys that contained dangerous magnets that could cause intestinal injuries in children if swallowed.

The new legislation, sponsored by Senators Mark Pryor (D-Ark) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), would provide more funding for a CPSC that has been crippled by budget cuts. Yesterday, during a Senate hearing on import safety, CPSC officials testified that the agency’s budget has declined by 15-percent in the past three years, and that it employs only one full-time toy inspector. CPSC acting chair Nancy Nord also told senators that the department’s testing facilities in Maryland ware so out-of date that some buildings were “not up to code”.

Legislation introduced by Pryor and Inouye would provide money to the CPSC to renovate its dilapidated facilities and hire 80 new employees. Federal funding for the CPSC would increase to $80 million in 2009, up from the current level of $62.7 million. The CPSC would also receive annual automatic 10-percent budget increases through 2015. And $20 million would be allocated to the CPSC to upgrade its testing labs.

The new law also would ban lead at any level in children’s products and require independent third party testing of all toy imports. And the bill provides for stiff penalties for companies caught violating safety standards. Those penalties include up to five years in jail for executives of companies that knowingly violate the law, and $250,000-per-violation fines. State attorneys general would also be granted power to bring civil suits against violators under the new laws.

New legislation such as the bill proposed by Pryor and Inouye would be a vast improvement over current safety laws. Right now, most safety standards are voluntary, and the CPSC must rely on toy manufactures to inform the agency of safety issues. The largest penalty the CPSC may assess is under $2 million – pocket change to huge conglomerates like Mattel. The CPSC also has no authority to bring criminal charges against company executives, even if it is proved that they knowingly put unsafe toys on the market. Under current law, the CPSC is ill-equipped to protect children from dangerous toys, and any law that would provide the agency with more enforcement powers would be a welcome change.

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