Fight Brewing in Congress over Database on Product Hazards

By Doug Bartholomew  |  Posted 2008-03-20

After a year in which tens of millions of toys were recalled from store shelves across America, consumers have decided they want greater access to information about hazardous products—and they want it now. 

That pressure from consumer groups, children’s safety organizations, and concerned parents has prompted Congress to hold hearings this month on proposed legislation that would overhaul the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and establish a searchable online consumer database of hazardous product information.

If passed into law, the Senate-passed bill, the Consumer Product Safety Commission Reform Act of 2008, would:

•    Boost CPSC’s funding by $25 million over 2 years
•    Ban lead in children’s products and make it illegal for any retailer to sell a recalled product
•    Authorize $1 million to research the safety of nanotechnology in products
•    Establish a database to include any reports of injuries, illness, death, or risk related to consumer products submitted by consumers, government agencies, child care providers, medical staff, coroners, and the media
•    Raise the cap on civil fines from the current $1.8 million to $20 million

Not surprisingly, many manufacturers aren’t exactly wild about the idea of consumers getting together online to compare notes about the potential hazards of their products. 

Many lobbyists for manufacturing groups vigorously oppose the Senate’s CPSC legislation, introduced by Senator Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), containing the consumer database provision. The Bush Administration and other critics charge that the online consumer database could unfairly or inaccurately portray manufacturers’ products, but President Bush has stopped short of promising a veto of the Senate bill. 

Instead, manufacturing groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers  support an alternative plan called the Consumer Product Safety Modernization Act, passed by the House in December. The House proposal would boost the agency’s funding and staffing, but doesn’t go so far as to create an online database for consumers to share their experiences with products that have the potential to injure or kill. 

The two bills’ differences will need to be reconciled by the Senate and House before the legislation can be passed and signed into law. 

For its part, the CPSC wants to be able to respond faster to product hazard reports, but the agency hasn’t made any initiatives to share those reports among consumers, nor was it even mentioned by Acting CPSC Chairman Nancy Nord in her remarks to Congress March 11.

Instead, Nord said the CPSC has created a new Import Surveillance Division “designed to be the front line of defense working to prevent dangerous toys and other hazardous products from entering the country. These employees will be specialists trained specifically in import surveillance procedures and will work closely with other government agencies… to track cargo, and with Customs officials, stop and inspect suspect shipments.”
A key piece of that initiative will be the CPSC’s increased use of the Customs and Border Protection Agency’s Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) system.

“The increased emphasis on import safety demands greater reliance than ever before on integrating CPSC databases and accessing other agencies’ databases, such as those of CBP, in a seamless fashion,” Nord says.

ACE is the Customs and Border Protection’s IT centerpiece, a $3.3 billion online system for tracking the contents of the 71,000 shipping containers that enter American seaports daily. ACE already is partially operational, but won’t have its full functionality available for use until 2011. 

Currently consumers can check a list of product recalls on the CPSC web site, but there is no information available about toys or other goods that pose a danger but haven’t yet caused sufficient fatalities or injuries to bring the agency’s attention, spark an investigation, and warrant a recall.

Rather than embracing the idea for a consumer-driven system, the CPSC’s own staff is seeking $17 million in additional funding this year, in part to add 64 employees and in part to create an early warning system that would enable it to respond faster to investigate reports of dangerous toys or hazardous consumer goods.

“The Early Warning System would be for our staff to connect the dots faster when there are incidents reported to our agency about unsafe or hazardous products, especially in cases involving juvenile or children’s products,” explains Scott Wolfson, a CPSC spokesman.

The CPSC is in the early stages of “looking to see which contracts can help us as well as to see what other government agencies are doing,” says Wolfson, declining to comment on the Senate plan for a CPSC-managed consumer online database containing information about dangerous products.

According to a legislative program staffer in Sen. Pryor’s office, it frequently takes months, and sometimes a year or more, before a dangerous toy or other product finally ends up on the recall list.

“Parents really have no way of knowing that these are dangerous,” Sen. Pryor told the Los Angeles Times. An online database where consumers and parents can go to check out products’ safety records before they buy would help, he believes.

And he’s not alone. In Senate testimony, Shelby Esses of Jacksonville, Ark., said a database like the one proposed in the Senate version might have sped her son’s diagnosis when he passed out last October after swallowing Chinese-made beads called Aqua Dots. He would regain consciousness and vomit up the beads, and then go limp, she said. After learning that Aqua Dots contained a chemical coating that metabolizes in the body into gamma hydroxyl butyrate—the so-called data rape drug—the CPSC ordered the product taken off store shelves.  

“The CPSC is overwhelmed,” Sen. Pryor states on his Web site. The CPSC estimates that there are 27,000 deaths caused by the 1,500 types of products they regulate, plus some 33 million injuries each year, at a cost of $70 billion annually.

During their hearings earlier this month, Senators heard testimony from a pair of mothers whose children fell victim to hazardous toys. Kara Burkhart told how her four-year-old son swallowed a 25-cent medallion from a gumball-type machine and nearly died from the lead it contained. The Redmond, Oregon child still has elevated levels of lead in his body four years later. Another four-year-old, Jarnell Graham of Minneapolis, died of lead poisoning in a similar incident.