New unsafe products database under fire on Hill
Friday, February 25, 2011; 5:16 PM
WASHINGTON -- It's something Nikki Johns wishes had been around before her infant son died in a drop-side crib: a centralized federal database of people's safety complaints about thousands of products, from baby gear to household appliances and more.
"If I had known there had been children killed in drop-sides, it would have swayed me against them," says Johns, who lost her 9-month-old son, Liam, in a faulty crib that came apart at the side rail and trapped the little boy one night after his mom went to bed at their home in Citrus Heights, Calif., nearly six years ago.
Johns, other parents who have tragically lost children, and consumer advocates are eagerly awaiting March 11, the formal launch date for the government database SaferProducts.gov, where people can share complaints of injury or worse from everyday products such as cribs, high chairs, space heaters and toasters.
But the database, overseen by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, isn't universally popular. Manufacturers and some members of Congress fear such a "crowd-sourced" website will be bloated with bogus, inaccurate or misleading reports. One of those lawmakers, freshman Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., sponsored an amendment approved in the House last week to withhold additional funding for the database, which could bring the project to a halt. Prospects for his amendment in the Democratic-led Senate aren't clear.
Anyone can submit a "report of harm" to the SaferProducts.gov database. They aren't required to have first-hand knowledge of the alleged injury or potential defect that could lead to injury. The reports are reviewed by commission staff to make sure basic information is provided - name, contact information, product, injury and approximate date, though personal information will be scrubbed before the report hits the database. The manufacturer is informed of the complaint and has 10 days to respond before the report is made public. CPSC says reports that have missing or clearly untrue information won't be published.
Plenty of safeguards exist to ensure accuracy, insists CPSC Commissioner Bob Adler, a Democrat and database supporter. Not only will manufacturers be allowed to publish any rebuttal along with the complaint, Adler said the commission will remove or attempt to correct any information that is found to be false.
"A report of harm comes in with a set of allegations and then the manufacturer is free to respond as fully as they wish," Adler said in an interview. "The consumer gets to be the ultimate judge instead of having the government be the data nanny."
The ability to present both sides - the person alleging harm and the manufacturer - is unique, says CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. "We're the only federal database that allows manufacturers to post their comments," she said in an interview.
Pompeo and other opponents say that's not enough to prevent false information about a product from showing up in the database, damaging its sales and misleading consumers.
"The agency's rule would require it to post false information about products, which would actually steer consumers away from safe products and toward less safe products," says Pompeo. Before the database goes public, Pompeo wants stronger rules about who can file injury reports and the kind of details they need to provide in order to guarantee the accuracy of the information.
The U.S. government has a similar auto safety database, also available to consumers online, that describes people's safety complaints in extraordinary detail. It is the government's principal early warning system intended to alert federal investigators to signs of looming safety problems. Yet despite efforts by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to review consumer complaints before they're memorialized in the government's database, an AP review of 750,000 records last year found that the data included complaints about slick pavement during snow, inconsiderate mechanics, paint chips, sloshing gasoline during fill-ups, potholes, dim headlights, bright headlights, inaccurate dashboard clocks and windshield wipers that streak.
Another dispute involves the CPSC database's cost.
The database was ordered by Congress as part of a 2008 product safety law aimed at removing lead and other dangers from toys, and last April the commission estimated it would cost about $20 million. That estimate included a major technology upgrade of antiquated computer systems that the agency said at the time was essential to providing a foundation for the searchable database.
Last week, however, at a House hearing on consumer safety issues, CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum, a Democrat, put the total cost for the database to date at only $3 million.
That was news to fellow commissioners at the agency, some of whom had seen budget projections as high as $29 million for the database and technology improvements.
"There was never a $3 million amount. It's not in any paper. That was news to everyone," CPSC Commissioner Anne Northup, a Republican and former member of Congress who also testified at the hearing, said in an interview. "It's impossible to separate the database money from the IT money."
Tenenbaum sticks by the $3 million figure for the database. She says the additional $20 million spent on the technology upgrade supporting the new database also supports other agency data systems, such as the computers that compile death reports and emergency room visits.