Federal toy and product safety database delayed

Several weeks back I wrote about how this easy-to-use database  over at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration where you can check if your peanut butter is salmonella free.But if a parent wants to find out if that Thomas and Friends wooden railway the kid has been hankering for is free of lead paint or  easy-to-swallow parts, you won’t have much luck over at the Consumer Product Safety Commission–yet. The agency is over  two months late with a required report to Congress on plans to build a new searchable database for its website that will contain information on reports of hazardous toys and other products. With this new database in place, parents should be able to quickly discover whether any other parent out there–or health professional, or child care center operator–has reported a safety problem with a toy, long before there is an official recall.

Last summer, largely in response to public uproar following the recall of millions of lead-contaminated popular toys imported from China–Big Birds and Elmos and Thomas the Tank Engines among them–Congress approved theConsumer Product Safety Improvement Act. As part of that law, the agency was required to produce, within 180 days, or by February 10, a detailed plan to Congress for the new database. Once the report is submitted, the agency then has 18 months to make it available to the public.

Yet February 10 came and went without the agency submitting the plan, with the agency claiming it had not received the funding to work on it. With the passage of the 2009 appropriations bill, Jacquie Elder, deputy executive director  staff now says the money is in and that staff are “beginning our work on developing the plan for the database.” As the law is written, every day in delay for the submission of the database plan to Congress also translates into a day of delay before the database is required to be made available to the public.

Nancy Nord, the acting chairman of the commission and a Bush appointee, was notoriously hostile to the idea of the database when it was originally debated on Congress. At a May 2008 speech before the National Retail Federation, she reportedly told attendees to fight the database provision. Nord had testified earlierthat the database requirement would be too costly. In March, Sen. Dick Durbin sent Nord a blistering letter, saying  “Recent comments you have made in the press…show your continued resistance to modernizing your agency and addressing the genuine public concern over unsafe products.” Nord has come under fire in the past for taking trips on the dime of the industries she regulates. The CPSC is also hamstrung because one of three commissioner slots has been vacant for some three years.

The new database is required to go beyond information currently available to consumers by requiring disclosure of any reports of harm that are submitted by consumers; local, state, or federal government; health care providers; child service providers; and public safety groups. You’ll be able to find out the types of injuries that have occurred, where they occurred, and other  information typically now available only through a formal Freedom of Information Act request. Manufacturers will be identified, which ought to make it possible to mash that information up with lobbying and campaign finance information.

However, there’s no explicit language  in the law requiring that the raw data underlying the database be made available to the public in a format such as XML or a text file. Offering the data in this format would make it easy for programmers to mash it up with other information, enhancing its reach. Imagine, for example,  maps showing where product injuries are occuring. Or an application that helps you check out toy safety on your cell phone. Every day the CPSC runs late on getting this data out to the public is a day when that information could have helped prevent new injuries.

[crossposted from Sunlight Foundation]


President Bush Bans Lead in Toys

Are you ready for this? I am about to pay a compliment to our president.

President Bush just signed into law a ban on lead and another dangerous chemical called phthalates in toys and children’s products, according to the Associated Press.

The ban, which is the toughest in the world, would double the budget of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission to $136 million by 2014. It would also give the agency new authority to oversee testing procedures by toy manufacturers and to punish violators of the law.

The prices for toys may go up as a result of the new legislation, but as of now shares for toy makers are actually up, according to AP.

The new law prohibits lead, beyond minute levels, in products for children 12 or younger. Lead paint was a major factor in the recall of 45 million toys and children’s items last year, many from China.

Both houses of Congress approved the bill by overwhelming margins two weeks ago.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates there are about 28,000 deaths each year linked to unsafe products, including toys, in the United States. More than 33 million people were injured last year by consumer products.

The bill also bans a chemical called phthalates that is widely used to make plastic products softer and more flexible.

Thank you, Congress. And thank you, Mr. President.


Hump Day Open Thread

As expected, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama each took a state in last night’s primaries, according to CNN.

CPSC Warning on Open Windows: Now that we are enjoying warm weather, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a statement warning parents of the dangers of leaving the windows open — even with screens. According to the CPSC, 18 children fell out of windows last month, including two who died.

ATTN Madonna Fans: The Material Girl, who turns 50 in August, gave an interview to Vanity Fair, revealing all, including her adoption in Malawi, motherhood in general, Kabbalah and her new album, Hard Candy. No mention of the rumors that her and long-time husband Guy Ritchie are headed towards splitsville.

Running News: Double amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius is poised to head to the Beijing Olympics now that an international appeals court ruled that his blade prosthetic legs are indistinguishable from human legs, according to the Washington Post. Pistorius, who was born without fibulas, had his legs amputated before his first birthday.

What else is in the news? What’s up with you?


What Are the Politicos Doing About Toy Safety?

We have spoken of the toys recalled for safety reasons. Fellow MTer Katy does a phenomenal job of covering all the recalls and shady toys in her blog Non-Toxic Kids. (Just see entry below.)  

But are the legislators and industry actually doing something about it? Parents recently released a full report:

The President: President Bush has called for measures to strengthen the CPSC’s (Consumer Product Safety Commision’s) authority by making it illegal for companies to knowingly sell a recalled product; by authorizing the agency to issue follow-up recall notices; and by requiring companies to report detailed information about recalled products. Bush also wants to establish a certification program for companies with a track record for meeting safety standards. In addition, he’s called for increased monitoring of countries and companies known for not meeting safety standards and increased penalties for violating U.S. import laws. He also wants more training for overseas inspectors.

Critics say this is a good start, but the CPSC needs an infusion of more federal money—and more manpower—so it can adequately monitor the safety of products on the market.

Congress: The CPSC Reform Act of 2007, which at press time had been approved by a Senate committee, would more than double the agency’s budget from $62.4 million to $141.7 million by 2015, increase staffing levels by nearly 20 percent, increase the maximum fine on companies from $1.8 million to $100 million, and give the agency greater authority. The bill also calls for more testing of children’s products, bans lead in children’s products, and (like the president’s proposal) makes it illegal to knowingly sell a recalled product. Another version of the bill is in the works in the House of Representatives.

Critics say in its current form, such a law would overly burden the CPSC. They think that most of the responsibility for monitoring products for safety should be on toy manufacturers—not on the government.

The States: Local political leaders are also taking action. Some states, including Maryland, Massachusetts, and California, are considering or have recently passed legislation to bolster lead testing and safety requirements for toys and jewelry made for children. Eight states (Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Vermont) currently have laws to prohibit the sale of any recalled items.

Critics say while it’s good that states are looking after their residents, it’s best to have federal laws. Regulations that vary by state can be challenging for manufacturers and retailers.

The Toy Industry: Manufacturers have been very aggressive in issuing voluntary recalls when they learn about unsafe products. They have also announced that they will conduct more stringent testing of their products and impose rigorous standards on imported goods. Some retailers, such as Toys “R“ Us, have called for further testing of the products they stock.

Critics say although these efforts are laudable, the proposed safeguards are inadequate. Manufacturers need another layer of enforcement by outsiders to ensure safety.

I agree with the last point by critics. I think the lack of federal oversight — especially in light of outsourced manufacturing and cutting funding and staff for the CPSC — is a problem and it shows.