Safety Chief Defends Record on Toys

Nancy A. Nord, acting chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, blamed the controversy over toy recalls to
Nancy A. Nord, acting chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, blamed the controversy over toy recalls to "near-hysteria" media coverage and opportunism by politicians. She now plans an "early warning system" for hazards and an industry testing program. (Photo: AP)
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By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 10, 2008

"Oh, gosh. You know, I'm tempted to answer that question rather fliply."

That was Nancy A. Nord, acting chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, responding to a reporter who asked -- after 19 recalls of toys containing hazardous levels of lead paint last year -- what Nord bought for the kids on her holiday list.

Nord bested the temptation to answer flippantly. She said instead that "consumers have to understand that toys are the most regulated product under our jurisdiction. Toys are safer than they have ever been."

During a presentation at the National Press Club this week, Nord complained at length about the media and Congress but offered few details about what she will do with the agency's first substantial budget increase in years.

"Being so prominently in the spotlight is a change for our agency. In some ways this is good, and in some ways it was not so good," she said. "But the change is inevitable. And that's where my focus will be in 2008."

Of the 472 product recalls issued by the CPSC during the 2007 fiscal year, 61 were for toys, an increase of more than 30 percent over the number of toy recalls in 2006. The total comes to more than one recall for every member of the agency's tiny staff, which after years of cuts now numbers 400.

"Last year was marked by intense media scrutiny of the agency and of toy recalls in particular . . . the coverage reached near-hysteria level," Nord said. "And then, of course, some politicians, sensing a possible political issue, jumped on the bandwagon."

"I am all for appropriate congressional oversight of the executive branch. . . . It's healthy, ultimately, for democracy," she said. "But an agency and an issue that has rarely been politicized -- consumer product safety -- found itself at the center of partisan politics this last year," said Nord, a Bush appointee.

While the CPSC struggled to keep up with its workload last year, President Bush requested an increase in its fiscal 2008 budget of $550,000 -- an amount so small it would have forced the agency to cut another 19 staffers. Congress approved a hike from $63 million to $80 million.

Nord said she plans to add an import safety surveillance division that for the first time would place CPSC staff at key ports and implement an import tracking system. The number of employees to be stationed in ports is not yet final. Last year the agency, working with customs officials, stopped just 200 shipments of potentially dangerous products.

Nord said the agency is working with the toy industry "to fashion a program that will result in industry-wide testing and certification of all toys imported into the United States." Legislation moving through Congress envisions that at least some of that testing would be done by manufacturers themselves.

Nord said she is creating "an early warning system" inside the agency, to "better identify and respond to children's product safety hazards," but with the funding increase barely two weeks old, she said her plans are still in the works.

In coming weeks, the Senate is likely to take up a bill that would expand CPSC's resources and powers, legislation that Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), called "a leadership priority." The bill is considered far tougher on manufacturers than a House bill passed last month.

Nord, a former industry lawyer, opposes key provisions, including a total ban on lead, and a requirement that the CPSC make consumer product hazard complaints public without prior approval by the manufacturer, as is the case now.

"Anything that would disincent people to come and talk to us early and often . . . would not be a helpful thing for this agency to experience," she said.

On the lead ban, she said she is "hopeful that [the Senate] will give us that regulatory flexibility. If they don't, then I have to say, you're just starting to see the beginning of recalls."

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