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Children’s Product Safety Focus of House Subcommittee Hearing

On May 15, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection held a hearing on children’s product safety. The hearing also examined the Infant and Toddler Durable Product Safety Act (H.R. 1698). Sponsored by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), the measure would require the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to set mandatory standards for daily-use infant and toddler products, including high chairs, strollers, infant carriers, swings, bassinets, and cribs by December 31, 2013.

“There is nothing more important than our mission to look out for our children’s safety,” said Chair Bobby Rush (D-IL). He continued, “If the federal government cannot deliver on this basic responsibility to help parents keep their children away from hazards and unsafe products, then we are not doing our job.” Rep. Rush called attention to a series of articles in the Chicago Tribune that investigated the death of a 20-month-old boy after he ingested magnets from a toy; Magnetix, the product that caused his death, had been the subject of several complaints to the CPSC. “What I want to take away from this hearing and what I want to understand, is why it took the Chicago Tribune’s investigation to get this product [Magnetix] off the shelves,” he said. Rep. Rush said he “fully respects and appreciates” the work of the CPSC but wants to “find out how the system broke down and I do want to repair the breech.”

Ranking Member Cliff Stearns (R-FL) said, “We need to focus more on children’s product safety and the current [CPSC] regulations. This is an agency [the CPSC] that has been underfunded. This is an agency that still does not have a commissioner. This is an agency that has regularly been operating with less money and doing more work.” He commended the CPSC on its work protecting children, noting that the commission received more than 300,000 product safety complaints in 2006. In response to Rep. Rush’s discussion of Magnetix, he said “Magnetix was manufactured in China and distributed out of Canada. It is difficult for us to impose standards on China or Canada, but we can set standards and make sure people who want to sell products here [in the U.S.] comply [with our regulations].” Rep. Stearns said that the CPSC needs to be strengthened to make it more effective.

“Two days ago we celebrated Mother’s Day,” said Rep. Schakowsky. She continued, “And while many families were rejoicing, for many others Mother’s Day is, and always will be, a day filled with sorrow and a reminder of their grief for a child they lost to unsafe children’s products.” Rep. Schakowsky said that a recent study highlighted a major problem: nearly 80 percent of adults believe the government oversees pre-market testing of children’s products. In reality, “there are no mandatory safety standards for the majority of children’s products sold today. The majority of standards in place today are set by the industry…The few mandatory standards, and all voluntary standards, are of questionable significance because there is no testing. What that means is that our children end up being guinea pigs every time we bring a new product into our homes.” Rep. Schakowsky discussed her bill, and urged her colleagues to support measures that will strengthen safety standards for all children’s products.

Acting Chair of the CPSC Nancy Nord described her agency’s success in protecting consumers, including children, saying she was “pleased to report that the overall rates of both deaths and injuries related to children’s consumer products has been in decline since 2001…Due substantially to the activities of the commission, both independently and in conjunction with our stakeholders, crib-related deaths have declined by an astonishing 89 percent since 1973 and poisoning deaths from drugs and household chemicals by an equally impressive 82 percent since 1972.” Ms. Nord went on to describe the challenges of regulating “15,000 types of consumer products” with a “staff of just over 400, and an annual budget of just over $60 million,” focusing her remarks on new types of children’s toys, such as electronics with very compact batteries or magnets.

Ms. Nord detailed the process of collecting data from consumers on potentially harmful products. The CPSC uses the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System to report on injuries from 100 hospital emergency rooms located nationwide, medical examiner reports, the CPSC’s website, media outlets, manufacturers, and retailers. The CPSC generally operates with voluntary safety standards, but “in any case where a voluntary standard fails to adequately address a product hazard, or where there is a lack of substantial compliance with an adequate standard, the commission may issue mandatory product safety regulations.” Once a product is recognized as defective, the CPSC works with the manufacturer to issue a voluntary recall; mandatory recalls also are possible, but “due to the lengthy and costly nature of the proceeding that we must undertake in order to issue such a recall, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of the recalls we oversee are voluntary on the part of the recalling firm…”

“In spite of remarkable progress that dramatically improved the length and quality of children’s lives in the U.S. over the past century, today’s children still face significant, real risks,” said Frederick Locker, general counsel to the Toy Industry Association (TIA). Mr. Locker said that the risk of death from a toy is “extremely rare” and cited the CPSC’s data that of 15 commonly used household products, “toys had the lowest incidence of injury and death.” However, when accidents occur, the TIA is “committed to action when hazard patterns emerge.” Calling the CPSC’s work “vital,” Mr. Locker recommended additional funding for its work with particular emphasis on the “retention of staff, upgrades to their testing laboratory, and support of increased coordination with other countries regarding harmonization of standards with better inspection and enforcement coordination.”

Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger, said, “While most parents believe that products are required to be tested for safety before they reach store shelves and that the government oversees such testing, the reality is much different. There is no requirement that children’s products be tested for safety before they are sold and no provisions for CPSC to monitor the testing of children’s products. Instead, we rely on voluntary industry standards, set by the very manufacturers that will be subject to their provisions.” She said that even when products are required to meet mandatory standards such as those for cribs and lead content “there is no requirement to certify that the product meets the standard before it is sold, leading to the large number of lead and other recalls a very ineffective way to protect children.” Ms. Cowles said that her organization supports H.R. 1698 because it would set mandatory standards and require independent testing of children’s products before they could be sold. She also urged Congress to increase its regulatory oversight of the CPSC and “to give the agency the tools they need to do an effective job and to require them to fulfill their responsibility to us all.”

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