Dozens of dangerous products that violate federal safety standards are finding their way onto retail shelves, while hundreds of other recalled items banned for sale in the United States are being shipped to shoppers abroad, according to an investigation by Consumer Reports magazine.
After an in-depth study of a decade of government product safety records, and shopping at more than a dozen stores, the magazine concluded that weak laws and lax enforcement are allowing some manufacturers and importers to ignore federal and voluntary industry safety standards.
It found that when agencies discovered unsafe goods, their actions could be contradictory. For example, U.S. Customs seized a shipment of 10,000 illegal switchblade knives disguised as cigarette lighters that were being imported in 2002. A year later, a shipment of knife-lighters was barred from entering U.S. ports, but was allowed to be rerouted and shipped to the United Arab Emirates.
The magazine faulted the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission for the continued sale of unsafe products both here and abroad. Citing a steep erosion in the agency's budget and staff, it said the agency was inadequately and inconsistently enforcing federal safety laws and policing store shelves.
The result, Consumer Reports concluded, is that consumers are buying many "potentially lethal products," including defective extension cords and electrical items that can overheat and burn; fake ground-fault circuit interrupter plugs that don't always trip when there is an electrical overload; toys that can choke, cut or poison young children; counterfeit batteries that leak acid, overheat or spark; and disposable lighters that leak fuel or explode. Many of these goods are fraudulently labeled, counterfeits to well-known and well-regarded brand-name items.
The magazine said that the CPSC's number of recalls, detained shipments and other enforcement actions were down 35 percent in 2003 from 2001.
The magazine, owned by the nonprofit Consumers Union, called on Congress to increase the agency's budget and enact new laws to ban the export of recalled products and give the agency more power to publicize unsafe products. It said that the agency's budget has shrunk to about half what it was 30 years ago, adjusted for inflation; the staff has been cut almost in half during that same time. Consumers Union has also written the CPSC asking it to increase its factory and store inspections, beef up enforcement of repeat violators and seek additional funding from Congress.
"The CPSC is all that stands between consumers and dangerous products in the marketplace," said R. David Pittle, Consumer Reports' senior vice president for technical policy and one of the original members of the CPSC when it was created in 1973.
The agency responded yesterday that the number of recalls, fines and seizures increased significantly for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. "We are now conducting more inspections of imported products in an effort to find violative products before they enter the U.S.," the CPSC said in a statement. "Clearly, we have made an impact on the safety of regulated products such as toys, fireworks and lighters since every year it becomes more difficult to uncover violations."
The agency said it has conducted numerous samplings at a variety of mass merchandise and dollar stores.
The magazine's staff visited dollar stores, drugstores, close-out centers and other discount stores and bought suspect products. Tested in Consumer Reports' labs, the magazine found 48 toys -- about 33 percent of the total purchased -- that violated either mandatory federal or voluntary industry safety standards.
The magazine said that the government's inspection of stores and factories has dropped from 1,130 in 1999 to about 500 in 2004. At the same time, detained shipments of imports have dropped 49 percent in the past two years. The main reason: The CPSC's chief partner in port inspections, U.S. Customs, has been more preoccupied with searching for bomb materials and other terrorism-related items.
A survey of the agency's records showed that between 1994 and 2004, 900 products that the agency had found to be unsafe were exported.
Pittle said Congress needs to ban exports of recalled goods. "Allowing manufacturers to export removes one of the major incentives for them to do a better job next time because there's always a back door to get rid of it."
The CPSC, in its statement, said all U.S. exporters of hazardous goods must notify the CPSC, which in turn will alert the foreign government of the shipment. "No company has ever been permitted to send their goods to a country that told CPSC it declined to allow entry," the agency said.