Senate Sends Sweeping Product-Safety Bill On to Bush

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 1, 2008

Historic legislation that would remove toxic chemicals from toys and put a more powerful and better-funded cop on the beat to police the safety of consumer goods is on the verge of becoming law.

The measure, approved by the Senate in an 89 to 3 vote last night and now awaiting President Bush's signature, represents the most significant expansion of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) since it was created in 1973. It also marks a fundamental shift in the federal government's approach to protecting consumers from dangerous products: transforming a reactive stance to a preventive one by dealing with hazards before goods reach the marketplace, including products manufactured overseas.

Although passed too late to affect toys that will be sold this holiday season, the measure's impact will be felt for years to come, supporters said.

The legislation's impact on consumers "is vast and can't be underestimated," said Rachel Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America.

Lead, the toxic metal that last year turned up in cherished playthings such as Elmo and Dora the Explorer, effectively would be banned from toys and children's products. So will some phthalates, a class of chemicals in soft plastic used in teethers, pacifiers and other items that infants and toddlers put in their mouths. The phthalate most commonly used in children's products, diisononyl phthalate (DINP) will be banned for two years, pending a study.

Toymakers would be required to have independent labs test products before they are sold -- a practice many consumers assumed was already happening until last year's wave of toy recalls. And voluntary safety standards would become mandatory, including a requirement that powerful rare earth magnets in toys not fall out or come loose. From 2003 to 2006, one child died and 19 others required surgery after swallowing magnets.

Consumers could eventually see labels certifying toys have been tested before being sold. When they buy a toy online or through a catalog, they would be able to see the same warning label that appears on packaging to warn parents of small parts or other potential hazards.

Consumers would also be able to look up complaints or accident reports involving not only toys but lighters, electric saws, cribs and other goods in an online database.

To ensure that manufacturers comply with all these new requirements, the CPSC will receive a large boost in resources and authority. The agency budget will nearly double to $136 million, from $80 million for this fiscal year. It has already begun hiring more inspectors for the nation's largest ports.

The CPSC will have the assistance of state attorneys general who will have the authority to help enforce federal product safety laws. They will be able to take manufacturers to court to keep dangerous products off the market.

"What you'll see is better systems put in place to check for dangerous products," said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), the measure's chief backer in the Senate and a former state attorney general.

Companies that fail to report hazards or violate product safety laws could face as much as $15 million in penalties. Previously, that amount was capped at $1.8 million.

The Senate vote followed months of debate among lawmakers, business groups and consumer advocates who agreed on many provisions, such as the lead ban and more funding for the CPSC. Talks became bogged down earlier this year over the proposed ban on phthalates and which parts of the measure would supersede state ones.

On Monday, House and Senate negotiators finally reached agreement on the remaining sticking points, and on Wednesday the House voted 424 to 1 to approve the measure.

The toy industry is hoping the new law will deliver the No. 1 item on its wish list this year: consumer confidence.

"We are going to be working hard to assure people of the safety of toys this season," said Carter Keithley, Toy Industry Association president. "This is a historic change for the industry. It adds a remarkable level of additional toy safety assurance . . . We feel it is the right thing to do."

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