The Caveat Emptor Commission

Reuters, The New York Times, Editorial

Most consumers still believe that if a product is on the shelf of a reliable store like Home Depot, somebody has tested it and proved it safe. At the least, they assume they would have heard about any dangers, the way they know about toxic substances in Chinese toys and toothpaste. But as Eric Lipton reported in The Times this week, that can be a dangerous assumption to make.

One harrowing example of a hazardous product is Stand 'n Seal, a spray designed to waterproof tiles and then "evaporate harmlessly." At least two people died and 80 were sickened or hospitalized after using it in 2005. Yet more than two years after such reactions were reported to the manufacturer, to the stores that carried the product and to the federal government, some cans of the hazardous spray were still being sold to unwitting customers.

The federal watchdog designated to protect buyers from this sort of danger is the Consumer Product Safety Commission, or what is left of it. Under the Bush administration's ideological drive to weaken agencies that regulate business, the commission has been "hollowed out," in the favorite Washington phrase, to less than half its former strength. Its staff, which was 978 strong in its heyday, now numbers only 401. It has outdated laboratory equipment, and in another sign of neglect, the Bush administration has failed for months to appoint one of the commissioners.

The Stand 'n Seal case makes it clear that the safety commission is increasingly unable to protect consumers quickly. Since no premarket testing is required, companies are allowed to decide whether their own products are safe. They are required to report possible hazards or problems within 24 hours to the commission. In the case of Stand 'n Seal, it took three months from the time the company first received an alarming report of how its product affected customers until the commission finally issued a formal recall. Even after the recall, some of the cans were still on shelves as late as spring 2007.

Consumers deserve better. There needs to be a more effective way to report when there are problems with a product, and the commission should be required to make the complaints available to the public as they come in. Once the commission decides on a recall, the company should be required to advertise to let consumers know. The commission should also be able to levy bigger fines on manufacturers, and selling these goods should be illegal.

Congress has finally begun to recognize that the Consumer Product Safety Commission is yet another federal agency that has been stripped of its powers to protect the public. Senator Mark Pryor, Democrat of Arkansas, is among those pushing to rebuild the agency, a few million dollars at a time. He, and others in Congress, should keep pushing. When greed or inefficiency trumps safety, consumers need a muscular Consumer Product Safety Commission to fight back.

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