By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 7, 2008
The Senate yesterday approved the most far-reaching changes to the nation's product safety system in a generation, responding to recalls of millions of lead-laced toys that rattled consumers last year.
Lawmakers still have to resolve key differences between the Senate bill and a similar measure that passed the House in December. While the Senate version is considered by consumer advocates to be tougher, both contain provisions that would require retailers and manufacturers to be more vigilant about product safety.
The biggest change is likely to be a better-staffed Consumer Product Safety Commission, with more enforcement power. Both bills would boost funding for the agency, which had a budget of $63 million in fiscal 2007 and just less than 400 employees, fewer than half the number it had in 1980. The Senate bill, which passed by a vote of 79 to 13, would increase the budget to $106 million by 2011. The House's version would increase it to $100 million.
Both bills would provide funds to upgrade the CPSC's antiquated testing facilities. Both bills also would raise the maximum amount of money the CPSC can fine companies that fail to report product hazards immediately. Fines are now capped at $1.8 million. The House bill would raise the cap to $10 million; the Senate to $20 million.
The Senate and House measures would also effectively ban lead in all children's products, not just toys, and require toys to be tested by independent labs.
"I'm glad something is going to change. I just hope future families don't have to go through what we had to go through," said Andrew Hartung of Manalapan, N.J., whose 14-month-old daughter, Abigail, was injured last fall in a Bassettbaby crib that was later recalled.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), said, "The vote is a victory for the health and safety of children."
The differences that remain involve which federal safety laws state attorneys general would be able to enforce, whether to grant whistle-blower protection to corporate employees, and which information would be included in a public database of product-safety incidents. The White House and the nation's largest manufacturers oppose giving state attorneys general too much leeway to interpret federal safety regulations, and they oppose whistle-blower protection, which they contend would encourage needless litigation.
The president has not threatened a veto.
An overhaul of the nation's product-safety system seemed a remote possibility just a year ago.
For the past decade, consumer and environmental groups had been finding lead in children's products. After a boy died in 2006 from swallowing a metal charm made of lead, the CPSC began to examine lead in children's jewelry. But until last year, the CPSC attracted little attention from lawmakers, despite regular testimony by consumer advocates about problems at the agency. Occasional pleas from industry were also futile.
Then, starting last March, a string of recalls involving toothpaste, tires and pet food containing contaminated ingredients from China caused U.S. consumers to question product safety. Public confidence in federal oversight of imports sank further in June when toymaker RC2 recalled Thomas and Friends toys for having lead paint, a toxic substance that most people thought had been banished from toys in the 1970s.
Lawmakers and the toy industry began talking about overhauling the CPSC in September after Mattel recalled more than 20 million products, including Barbie, Elmo and Dora toys, because they were coated in lead or contained small, dangerous magnets.
"It wasn't until some of these recalls began to happen relating to standards that had been in place for many years that we realized the system needed to be strengthened," said Toy Industry Association President Carter Keithley.
After years of sparsely attended congressional hearings, Nancy A. Nord, acting chairman of the CPSC, was greeted by a standing-room-only crowd at her September appearance before a Senate subcommittee. By then, retailers had begun retesting their inventory and recalls of lead-laced toys became almost daily events.
Despite a desire by both consumer groups and manufacturers to get a bill passed by year's end, negotiations over the House and Senate bills dragged on.
In early November, several Australian children fell into comas after ingesting parts of a craft toy. Doctors discovered that a chemical component in the toy metabolized into a substance used as a date-rape drug. The same toy was marketed in the United States and sickened two children.