Our View on Consumer Protection: Unsafe Products Overwhelm Emaciated Safety Agency

Adrienne Lewis, USA Today, Editorial

Stripped of staff and authority, CPSC struggles to keep up.

In the spring of 2005, a baby was strangled by a defective crib in California, and a Texas woman collapsed after she used a can of spray sealant to treat kitchen and bathroom tile.

What links the cases is not just dangerous products and companies that did not move to quickly recall them, but the tragically ineffective response of the government agency responsible for acting when companies do not: the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

Begun in 1973 in a wave of consumer protectionism, the commission is overwhelmed and understaffed. It investigates barely 10%-15% of the reports it gets of product-related deaths and injuries. Its staff has shrunk to about 400, from a peak of 978 in 1980. The huge recalls of lead-tainted toys from China this year revealed that the agency's primary full-time, small-parts toy tester is a guy named Bob.

There's plenty of blame to go around for CPSC's deterioration. A succession of presidents and Congresses, hostile to the burden the commission can place on business, have limited its power and budget. The results can be tragic.

In the months it took before an initial recall of the tile sealant that hospitalized the Texas woman, many people were injured and two died. Even when the manufacturer changed the chemical formula and convinced the CPSC that it was safe, the spray continued to send users to hospital emergency rooms with serious lung damage, according to a report in The New York Times. The spray was finally pulled from hardware store shelves in March.

In the case of the crib death, a CPSC investigator filed a report that should have flashed a red light. Yet it wasn't until the Chicago Tribune inquired more than two years later – during which time two more babies died – that the CPSC began a crib recall in August.

Stories like these have propelled CPSC into the headlines and subjected it to harsh criticism. In some cases, the commission has been troublingly ineffectual, seemingly without the will or aggressiveness it would take to be a truly effective watchdog.

In other cases, CPSC's overburdened staff has doggedly pursued dangerous products and demanded recalls that have saved lives. Its website is full of product warnings and recall notices that range from toys and bicycles to appliances and hot tubs.

Yet the agency has nowhere close to the resources or authority it needs to monitor the more than 15,000 categories of products that come increasingly from countries such as China, with little or no notion of U.S. consumer protection norms. Importers, not an army of government inspectors, should bear primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of these products. But because many U.S. companies have done a bad job of monitoring their overseas suppliers, and companies too often drag their feet before reporting problems, a vibrant CPSC is essential.

Congress, which had a major hand in whittling the CPSC down to its current shrunken state and curbing its powers, has belatedly recognized the problems and proposed more money and tougher laws. It's about time.

Even so, a larger budget won't fix what's wrong without strong leadership. The Bush administration has left the commission limping along with an acting chairman and without one of its three commissioners. Until this White House, or the next one, puts consumer protection above business friendliness, the list of horror stories is likely to grow.

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