The Senate took strong steps on Thursday to bolster the safety of millions of products sold in the U.S., particularly goods used by children. By a huge margin—79 to 13—the Senate approved a measure not only to strengthen the Consumer Product Safety Commission with more funds and enforcement clout but also to tighten the safety rules governing toys. Specifically, the approved bill lowers lead levels in all children's toys and also requires third-party pre-market testing for children's products. For all products, the measure creates a public database of complaints so that information on unsafe products can be shared more quickly.
The CPSC Reform Act of 2008, as the measure is called, was developed in response to a burgeoning number of recalls and safety issues that have overwhelmed the understaffed and underfunded safety agency over the past year. It was sponsored by a bi-partisan group of senators including Mark Pryor (D-AR), Ted Stevens (R-AK), Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and Susan Collins (R-ME).
“The CPSC is crippled under budget restraints, mounting imports and thousands of new products entering the marketplace. As a result, we’ve seen endless recalls and unnecessary deaths and injuries,” said Senator Pryor in a press release. “My legislation allows parents and the CPSC to fight back against the tide of dangerous toys and products. It provides new safety safeguards that emphasize resources, accountability, disclosure and testing—from the factory floor to the store shelves.”
Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, was among the many advocacy groups that supported the bill, which builds on the reforms contained in a House bill passed in December. “After 2007 became the Year of the Recall, consumers’ confidence in our product safety system was dashed,” said Ami Gadhia, Policy Counsel for Consumers Union. “In today’s climate of partisan politics, it is great to see the Senate come together to protect children and consumers in this global marketplace."
The groups supporting the Senate action acknowledge the importance of marrying the strong reforms of that bill with key provisions in the House product safety bill. In particular, the groups point to the Senate’s provisions addressing the public database, state attorneys general enforcement and whistleblower protections. The groups will urge conferees to keep these provisions, while also adopting a critical House measure that ensures product testing of more children’s products by defining such products as those designed for children under 12 years of age. The Senate bill covers products designed for children under seven years of age.
Some of the highlights of the Senate bill include:
Lead: Bans lead in all children’s products.
Testing: Requires third-party safety certification of children’s products. Upon CPSC approval, proprietary labs (those owned or operated exclusively for a given manufacturer) will be allowed to test products if they provide equal or greater consumer protection than the manufacturer’s use of a third party lab.
Safety standards: Current voluntary toy safety standards developed by ASTM International, an independent standard-setting organization, will become mandatory and toys must be certified to these standards.
Enhancing recall actions
Labeling: Requires manufacturers to label children’s products with tracking information to help consumers and retailers identify recalled products.
Recalled products: Makes it unlawful for retailers to sell a recalled product.
Subcontractors: Requires companies to identify their subcontractors in the supply chain.
Increasing resources and effectiveness
Funding: Approves seven years of funding for the CPSC, starting at $88.5 million in 2009 and increasing at a rate of 10 percent per year through 2015. For 2009 and 2010, an additional $40 million would be authorized to upgrade CPSC’s laboratories and $1 million would be authorized to research the safety of nanotechnology in products.
Quorum: Allows a two-member quorum to conduct official business for nine months. The CPSC currently is without a quorum and cannot conduct business that requires Commission action, such as a mandatory recall. The measure also restores the Commission to five members instead of three members to prevent future absences of quorum.
Database: Establishes a public database to include any reports of injuries, illness, death or risk related to consumer products submitted by consumers, local, state or national government agencies, child care providers, physicians, hospitals, coroners, first responders, and the media. The CPSC would be able to expedite the disclosure of industry-provided information in the interest of public health and safety.
Strengthening penalties and enforcement
Civil fines: Increases the civil fine penalty cap up to $20 million from the current level of $1.8 million.
Criminal penalties: Increases criminal penalties to five years in jail for those who knowingly and willingly violate product safety laws.
Attorneys General: Allows state Attorneys General to obtain injunctive relief on behalf of its residents to enforce product safety laws.
Whistleblower protections: Provides whistleblower protections for employees of manufacturers who shed light on any problems along the supply chain.