"I was furious," said Edith Barksdale-Sloan, describing how she felt when she discovered that her son, now 7, had been wearing pajamas treated with a chemical that scientists had suspected for more than a year might cause cancer.
Barksdale-Sloan, 39, then director of the D. C. Office of Consumer Protection, launched what she termed "a very successful" campaign by the agency's staff to remove from District stores children's sleepwear treated with the chemical, Tris. Most District firms voluntarily removed the sleepwear and "we threatened to take two companies to court" before they agreed to take the garments off their shelves, she said.
Campaigns like this one, to protect District consumers, during Barksdale-Sloan's two years in the D.C. office made her popular with consumer activists and led to her appointment to the federal Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), the agency that issued the April 1977 ban on Tris-treated children's sleepwear. The appointment has been confirmed by the Senate.
Barksdale-Sloan, a graduate of Hunter College in New York and Catholic University Law School in Washington, has lived in the District for 13 years. A former Peace Corps teacher in the Philippines for two years, she spent seven years as executive director of the National Committee on Household Employment before taking over as director of the D.C. consumer office.
She sees her son, Douglass, 7, and stepson, Reuben, 10, off on the school bus each day, then walks a mile to a Metro station to take the subway to work.
With a working day that lasts from early morning until she gets home about 7:30 p.m, Barksdale-Sloan says that she is "lucky to have a good, stable marriage." She said her husband, E. Ned Sloan, acting chief of licensing for the Federal Grain Inspection Service, "has seven sisters and is not threatened" by her successful career.
Barksdale-Sloan said she is a strong believer in "pre-marketing testing. I don't think a product should be allowed on the market until it has been tested, especially when it is chemically treated." She was a vocal critic of the CPSC's handling of the Tris testing and ban, saying that the agency "moved too slowly."
"It was an outrage. It should not have happened" that children's sleepwear treated with Tris remained on sale for more than a year after scientists first questioned the chemical's safety, she said.
She said she is "absolutely elated" about her appointment to the commission, "even though I know it won't be a bed or roses [WORD ILLEGIBLE] I certainly, will try" to influence the commission in favor of her views on testing and standards. "I'll be out shouting to the rafters," she said.
Barksdale-Sloan took over the D.C. consumer office in April 1976 when the agency's reputation was clouded by reports of mismanagement, inefficiency and unauthorized spending by staff members on travel, food, lodging and plush office improvements. The former director, William B. Robertson, resigned in late 1975 after he was criticized in a city management study for failing to adequately enforce consumer legislation.
Armed with a growing budget and what she calls an "excellent (consumer) law, one of the best in the country," Barksdale-Sloan believes she and her staff are "changing the image to one of an office that is willing to enfore the law and do so as vigorously as possible."
Consumer complaints have tripled in the last 18 months "because of the outreach program of the office," she said. "People know now that there is a place they can complain. This is particularly true of low-income areas."
Barksdale-Sloan said that when she took over the office she ordered a study of 700 complaints. It showed that a majority of consumer complaints came from areas of the city populated by middle-income residents, with few requests for help coming from affluent and low-income citizens. During the past year and a half, the number of complaints has become more evenly distributed among all income groups, she said.
She attributes this change to the efforts of eight community organizers, one in each ward of the city, whose job is to educate consumers and "try to get them to protect themselves." The ward workers are paid with CETA (the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) funds.
The agency has not had funds to publish educational materials, said the director, and so has distributed only one brochure. "It was aimed at the low-income consumer because we found that he did not even know he was a consumer," she said.
The largest number of complaints the office receives involve automobile purchases or repairs, and the cases that end up in court most often involve complaints about autos and home improvement work, Barksdale-Sloan said. These two categories along with credit problems - complaints of credit denied or harrassment of debtors - are the most time-consuming to investigate, she added.
The District consumer agency now has a staff of 39, of whom 27 are paid with CETA funds. They are grappling with a backlog of about 1,700 complaints that are in various stages of investigation.
"Probably my most frustrating problem has been to get the system working so that after 105 days" a case is either settled or has been turned over to the agency's legal staff to be prepared for court action, said Barksdale-Sloan. The 105 days is the time limit set on investigation of a complaint by the consumer law.
"Until June 1977 we only had four people working on cases. Then with the CETA funds we were able to get 23 more people, and we put most of them on investigations," she said. "The staff we have now should be sufficient if we ever catch up."
Barksdale-Sloan disputed a statement by the agency's general counsel, Bettie J. Robinson, that the consumer office is top-heavy with administrators and that "only nine" employees are assigned to investigate cases.
The agency has only five administrative officers, including the director, and "we have 16 people working on cases," according to Barksdale-Sloan, who said she has never had a secretary. "I use a CETA clerk-typist and do a lot of my own typing."
Robinson made the statement during public interviews of persons seeking the directorship of office of consumer protection. Five women, including Robinson and another aide to Barksdale-Sloan, Dorothy J. Kennison, a trained sociologist and now the agency's senior program analyst, answered questions at the interview session, held by the consumer office's advisory committee.
Barksdale-Sloan said she has recommended to Mayor Walter E. Washington that he appoint Kennison as her successor because the program analyst "is a committed consumer advocate. I think she would do an excellent job."
The fiscal 1979 budget request of nearly $700,000 is three times the amount of money the agency had when Barksdale-Sloan took over the directorship of the agency. The 1978 budget of $520,000, held up like the rest of the District budget for this fiscal year by congressional wrangling over a convention center for the city, will provide for staff increases, including two more attorneys, the director said.