Consumer Watchdog Group Says CPSC Leaders Play Politics with Children’s Health

Washington, DC-  This week, a House Energy & Commerce subcommittee will hear from Center for Environmental Health (CEH) Executive Director Michael Green, who will charge that political decisions to protect industry at the expense of children's health are at the heart of many of the current problems at the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In testimony last week heard by a Senate subcommittee, CPSC leaders blamed outdated facilities and a lack of funding for the recent toy safety problems, but Senators missed an opportunity to question the impact of recent agency decisions to downplay risks to children from many hazardous products.

"We recognize that CPSC is woefully under-funded and understaffed. But in several recent cases, the agency's leadership has gone out of its way to undermine strong actions to protect children's health," said Green. "We are deeply troubled by evidence from CPSC's own internal documents that demonstrates the extreme willingness of the agency's current leadership to put industry's convenience ahead of children's health. The lax attitude at CPSC has contributed to safety hazards that put our children at risk."

In his testimony on Thursday, Green will relate several recent instances in which CPSC's leadership has actively undermined strong health protections for American children. For example, earlier this year, an Associated Press report revealed that CPSC had covered up test results and manipulated testing methods after CEH revealed lead hazards to children from vinyl lunchboxes. CEH testing found that about 20% of lunchboxes it tested had high lead levels, including one lunchboxe that was more than 5.6% lead, more than 90 times the federal paint standard. Several states also did testing and took action to recall or warn parents about the dangers in vinyl lunchboxes.

But less than a month after CEH initiated its legal challenge to stop the sale of hazardous vinyl lunchboxes, CPSC released its "Preliminary Lead Test Results for Vinyl Lunchboxes," stating that the lunchboxes posed no health threat to children. CPSC refused requests to release their test data from CEH and several journalists. But internal CPSC documents later obtained from FOIA requests by CEH and the AP showed that at the time of this statement, CPSC had tested fewer than ten lunchboxes, finding three with high lead levels. The documents also showed that after CPSC's initial testing found high lead levels, the agency changed its test method, in an apparent attempt to manipulate the testing to artificially minimize the threat to children.

In response to the AP article on lunchboxes, four members of the House subcommittee that is holding this week's hearing wrote a sharply worded letter to CPSC Commissioner Nord, noting that "If the implications [in the AP article] are true, we are appalled." The letter asks Nord six questions about the lunchbox issue and CPSC's policies. This week, the Center has sent the four Congress members suggestions for ten additional questions for Nord about this and other recent CPSC failures.

Even more recently, when CEH revealed that WalMart and Toys R Us vinyl baby bibs had high lead levels, CPSC stated that they would not push for a recall, and that only used, deteriorated bibs were a problem. But CEH testing found lead on the surface of new bibs, and independent laboratories commissioned by the New York Times and by CEH both found levels of lead in new baby bibs that were more than three time the federal paint standard.

Finally, in April 2005, CEH revealed that a glossy coating on fake pearls on a Disney "Princess" bracelet was more than 16% lead, more than 275 times the legal limit of .06%. The Center immediately sent samples of the bracelet to CPSC and asked the agency to conduct a recall. But CPSC took no action. A June 2005 letter from Disney to CEH stated that CPSC testing found no lead problem in the jewelry. Yet in September 2005, CPSC quietly recalled the piece, noting that it contained "high levels of lead."

"We hope that the Committee will hold CPSC's leadership accountable for this pattern of denial on lead threats to children," said Green. "While legislation is surely needed for stronger standards to protect children, the Committee must also address the troubling manipulations of science and policy by CPSC's current leaders."

The CEH "Ten Questions for CPSC Commissioner Nord" are below.

Excerpts from the FOIA documents obtained by CEH are at http://www.cehca.org/CPSCFOIAinformation.htm

The House members' letter to CPSC is at http://markey.house.gov/docs/health/CPSC.FDA.022207.CTCP.Lead%20Lunchbox.pdf

Click here to download the  CPSC's reply letter to the House members' letter.

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Ten Questions for Consumer Product Safety Commissioner Nancy Nord

The Committee's February 22, 2007 letter to the agency asks CPSC six questions which we hope agency leaders will be asked at Wednesday's hearing. In addition, we are suggesting ten additional questions for CPSC Commissioner Nord that we hope the House members will ask:

1.  Current California standards under the states Proposition 65 law are 350 times stricter for lead than CPSC's current standard. Other federal agencies are also more protective: EPA, for example, has a long-term goal of zero-lead in water, and the CDC says that there is no safe level of lead exposure to children. Why is CPSC using outdated science in determining how much protection children need from lead?

2.  Commissioner Nord told members of the House committee, in her March 2, 2007 letter, that the Federal Hazardous Substance Act defines a hazardous substance in such a way that CPSC must judge a hazard by how much lead (or another hazardous substance) is accessible from a child's product. But it is up to CPSC, not the statute, to define the level at which a substance poses a hazard. Since current science says there is no safe level of lead, why have you chosen to define a hazard level that is, for example, 350 times less protective than the California standard? Instead of saying that we can't act because there's not enough lead, couldn't you simply update the hazard level for lead to reflect the most current science?

3.  Internal CPSC documents show that when CPSC released its September 27, 2005 "Preliminary Lead Test Results for Vinyl Lunchboxes," which said that the lunchboxes posed no health threat to children, the agency had tested fewer than ten lunchboxes, finding three with high lead levels. Why did CPSC feel a need to release this misleading statement, given its minimal data?

4.  Regarding lead-tainted vinyl lunchboxes, the FDA last year stated that "some migration of lead to food…may reasonably be expected." But a CPSC spokesperson this year was quoted by the Associated Press, saying that food in a child's lunch box "may have an outer wrapping, a baggie, so there isn't direct exposure." Given FDA's warning, why isn't CPSC concerned about unwrapped food in a child's lunch box? Did CPSC test for lead from lunch boxes given the potential for contact with foods, especially acidic foods?

5.  CPSC says that lead in vinyl baby bibs is a problem only if the bibs are used or deteriorated. But testing has found lead on the surface of vinyl bibs, and independent lab testing commissioned by the New York Times and by CEH found levels of lead in new vinyl baby bibs that were consistently three to four times the federal lead paint standard. Given these lead levels in new baby bibs, why does the agency continue to suggest that lead in baby bibs is only a problem in old bibs?

6.  CPSC received samples of a Disney bracelet for lead testing in April 2005. Two outside labs had found high lead levels in a glossy coating on the bracelet, levels that were 275 times the legal limit. A Disney letter from June 2005 states that CPSC testing found that the coating was "well below the legal limit," but a September 2005 CPSC recall notice states that the piece was recalled due to "high levels of lead." Did CPSC tell Disney that the bracelet was not a lead hazard, and then later change its position? Why did CPSC allow this hazardous product to remain on the market for nearly six months?

7.  The July 2004 recall of 150 million pieces of children's jewelry from vending machines nationwide was, according to CPSC's recall notice, a recall of jewelry produced in India. Other lead-tainted jewelry has come from other countries in Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere. Is the jewelry problem really best addressed by "new" agreements with China? Doesn't it make more sense to hold American retailers responsible for the safety of the products they sell?

8.  CPSC says that it is in the process of rulemaking for lead in metal children's jewelry. But tests have found high lead levels in vinyl jewelry and in coatings on fake pearls. Why is the agency looking at metal only, when other jewelry components can poison children?

9.  CPSC has been working on its jewelry rulemaking for more than a year. Meanwhile, more than 100 jewelry producers and retailers have agreed to strict legal standards limiting lead in metal, vinyl and other jewelry materials, and California has adopted a comprehensive jewelry law based on these standards. Why can't CPSC simply adopt the California levels, even as an interim step?

10.  In CPSC Deputy Commissioner Thomas Moore's testimony to the Senate last week, he stated, "As far as the lead in children's products issue, I wish that the Commission had the authority to find it unacceptable for any, any amount of lead, or any other toxic substance, to be in a child's, or be in children's products."

But Commissioner Nord's March 2, 2007 letter states that, "CPSC staff does not hold the view that the [statute] needs to be changed, given the CPSC's existing authority to address any product hazard associated with accessible lead in children's products."

In other words, Commissioner Moore said he wished that the statute was more protective, but you believe that some lead in children's products should be permitted. Given this disagreement about the level of protection children deserve, and given the attempts by the agency's leadership to protect industry at the expense of children's health, how can Americans have any faith in your leadership?