logoA House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing, designed to undo recent protections laid out in the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA) and to slash funding for the critical Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), is a step in the wrong direction, Public Citizen said.

“[Last Thursday's] hearing was merely an opportunity for industry to argue before Congress for the undoing of the massive improvements to consumer product safety that took place over the past three years,” said Christine Hines, Public Citizen’s consumer and civil justice counsel.

Chairing the hearing was Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA), Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, who said that while CPSIA “has many virtues, there are some unintended consequences to the law as well.”

“For thousands of businesses, who strive to be responsible … CPSIA has consumed an inordinate amount of their time trying to understand how each new regulation and standard will affect them,” Bono Mack said in her opening comments. “Unfortunately, many have gone out of business, attributing their demise to some of the burdens of compliance with the many provisions of the new law.”

Democrats disagreed. "The fact remains that the system we had in place was a failure, and this law was necessary to protect kids and families across the country," Rep. Henry Waxman, (C-CA) said.

Record recalls

photoIn 2008, Congress passed the bipartisan CPSIA, hoping to stem a perceived increase in the number of unsafe products on the market and the resulting record number of product recalls.

Under the terms of the CPSIA, the commission has required toys and infant products to be tested before they are sold and banned lead and phthalates in children’s products. The new law also authorizes necessary funding for the CPSC and increases the level of civil penalties the agency can assess against violators of the law.

But manufacturers and industry lobbyists now argue that the law went too far by establishing standards that are unnecessarily strict and requiring third-party testing that is a burden for smaller firms.

That argument was echoed by Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), who chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

“While we have seen little evidence of improvement in children’s safety, there has already been an extreme impact on the children’s product market – particularly for small- and micro-sized businesses,” Upton said.  The Commission has pushed off the day of reckoning for some businesses by postponing, again and again, the expensive requirements for third-party independent laboratory testing of children’s products. 

“But the Commission has already told us that it believes its hands are tied—it can do nothing more to exempt products from this costly testing, even when the risk, if any, is minute and the burden to small business is gargantuan.”

But not everyone agrees that inconvenience to business should outrank child safety.

“Small toy shop owners say their businesses are being threatened by these legislations and that they are the victims of large toymakers using lead in products,” said trial lawyer Mark Bello, writing on the InjuryBoard.com blog.

“Is third-party testing an extra layer of protection that is needed? Shouldn’t all parents be assured that their children’s toys are safe, regardless of who made or sold them? From a product safety standpoint, it doesn’t make a difference whether the toy comes from a local store or a national chain; a parent has the right to expect a safe product,” Bello said.

Public database

The law also aims to increase transparency by building a publicly accessible database of consumer complaints about unsafe products. The database, which will be launched in less than a month, has been a recent target of industry attacks.

“Pulling the plug on the database would be a huge mistake. If manufacturers are producing safe products, they have nothing to fear from this critical safety tool,” Hines said.

Public demand for these protections remains very strong, Hines said. A recent Consumer Reports poll found that 95 percent of respondents agreed that the federal government should require testing by manufacturers of children’s products to ensure that they do not contain any harmful substances, and 93 percent of respondents agreed that the federal government should make consumer complaints about safety hazards with products available to the public.

“This hearing is yet another attempt by the new House majority to roll back public protections and defund the agencies responsible for protecting our country’s health and well-being,” said Alex Chasick, regulations policy counsel for Public Citizen. “Agencies like the CPSC and the Food and Drug Administration exist to give Americans confidence that the products and food they buy will not sicken, injure, or kill them or their children.

“The recent bipartisan health and safety laws are Congress’ promise to voters that they will work with agencies to protect Americans from unsafe products. We urge them not to break this promise,” Chasick said.