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House Subcommittee Examines Measures to Improve Child Product Safety

On June 6, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection held a hearing on several bills to improve consumer product safety for children. The legislation included a bill to increase the maximum civil penalty for violators of the Consumer Product Safety Act (H.R. 2474); the Danny Keysar Child Product Safety Notification Act (H.R. 1699); the Children’s Gasoline Burn Prevention Act (H.R. 814); and the Pool and Spa Safety Act (H.R. 1721).

In emphasizing the importance of the hearing, Chair Bobby Rush (D-IL), sponsor of H.R. 2474, said, “One of the most critical subjects in the subcommittee’s jurisdiction is consumer product safety, especially the safety of children’s products…I regard this aspect of our jurisdiction very seriously. I intend to initiate comprehensive reform of the nation’s children’s product safety system during this Congress. We can do no less for our children. Today’s hearing is a first step. We are considering four bills each has a limited, rather targeted goal. More important, all the bills enjoy bipartisan support.” H.R. 2474 would raise to $20 million the cap on civil penalties for violations of the Consumer Product Safety Act (P.L. 95-319).

Ranking Member Cliff Stearns (R-FL) said, “The legislation we examine today addresses four discrete issues: an increase in civil penalties the CPSC [Consumer Product Safety Commission] can levy; a mandatory product registration for child nursery items; a uniform safety cap for gasoline containers; and pool and spa safety standards. Everyone wants to make sure that our children are safe, and that unscrupulous people who evade laws and standards are punished. I wholeheartedly support improved safety standards and punishing wrong-doers, but I have some questions about aspects of the relevant legislation that I hope will be explored during our question and answer period.”

Edmund Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), indicated support for all four measures, saying, “While the consensus bills before you today will not solve all of the CPSC’s fiscal and regulatory problems, they will give it more regulatory tools to protect the public.”

Of H.R. 1699, sponsored by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Mr. Mierzwinski said, “This legislation…addresses one of the troubling problems that the CPSC faces: how to ensure that recalled products are actually tracked down and recalled from the market. The legislation would establish an improved recall registration card mechanism for finding recalled durable infant or toddler products [high chairs, cribs, strollers]. In the past, dual-use warranty registration cards have had a low trust factor. Consumers don’t fill them out because they will also be used for marketing…We believe that this bill strikes the right balance by prohibiting the use of information on recall registration cards for any secondary purpose.”

Mr. Mierzwinski also recommended that H.R. 814, sponsored by Rep. Dennis Moore (D-KS), “be broadened to also apply to kerosene containers, which pose similar burn or poison risks.” The bill currently requires the CPSC to require child-resistant caps on portable gasoline containers; the CPSC currently does not have the authority to do so since the containers are empty when sold. He also suggested strengthening H.R. 1721 by “adding staff…to administer the grants program and to upgrade the CPSC’s capability to run major programs to reduce drowning.” As currently written, that bill, sponsored by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), would require new construction of pools and spas to include drains with covers meeting enhanced safety standards, establish a state grant program to encourage greater pool and spa safety, and enhance CPSC drowning education programs.

Sally Greenberg, senior product safety counsel for the Consumers Union, also testified in support of the legislation before the subcommittee. Of Rep. Rush’s bill, Ms. Greenberg said, “This increase in potential fines would be, we believe, a strong deterrent for any company that might otherwise be inclined to flout the law. For some companies, the current cap on fines [$1.825 million] is so low that the threat of the fine will not make a dent in the company’s bottom line. The $750,000 fine that the CPSC assessed on Wal-Mart several years ago for failing to report safety hazards with fitness machines cost the company the equivalent of sales run up in only one minute and 33 seconds.”

In support of H.R. 1699, Ms. Greenberg said, “Registering products with manufacturers will allow consumers to be more easily contacted in the event of a safety recall.” She added that, “A recent report by the Chicago advocacy group, Kids in Danger, shows that 111 of the 318 products recalled by the CPSC in 2006 were children’s products, representing 35 percent of all product recalls. And of those 111 products tested, about a third exposed children to risk of bodily injury…Indeed, these recalled products caused 177 injuries and six deaths in 2006.” She noted that, “by federal regulation, car seat manufacturers are required to provide a simple product registration card of the kind specified in H.R. 1699.”

In conclusion, Ms. Greenberg said, “Consumers Union supports all four of the bills before the subcommittee this morning. We believe that if a product proves hazardous and can be made safer for a reasonable cost and the utility of the product preserved, we should take the steps to make that product safer. The bills you are considering…embody that basic principle.”

Also scheduled to testify was Nancy Nord, acting chair of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Although not in attendance, Ms. Nord stated in written testimony, “First, all the bills evidence a genuine desire to address real and difficult product safety issues. Second, should any, or all, of these bills be enacted into law, we will require additional resources to implement and enforce them…the CPSC is relatively small, with just over 400 full-time employees and a budget of just over $62 million in FY2007. While other, larger agencies may be able to realign priorities and resources to implement new legislation, we operate on a very small margin…and any significant new commitment of people, time, or money will result in fewer resources being available for some other area or activity. In other words, we will need to take resources away from existing projects to implement the projects addressed in these bills unless you can assure additional resources for these new activities.”

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