Protecting America's children

Beginning last spring, an alarming number of dangerous and sometimes deadly imported consumer products were identified. Reports of Chinese-manufactured toothpaste that contained a dangerous, poisonous chemical used in antifreeze were soon followed by the reports of contaminated, Chinese-manufactured pet food being blamed for causing kidney failure in hundreds of American pets. Soon, additional concerns were raised about Chinese farm-raised seafood, truck and van tires, and chemical and pharmaceutical products.

These disturbing deficiencies were followed by an unprecedented number of consumer recalls for children’s toys and products, largely due to unsafe levels of lead. With more than 80 percent of all toys sold in the United States being made in China, it would be easy to simply blame the problems on China’s poorly regulated export manufacturers. But doing so would be to ignore the regulatory deficiencies, questionable business practices, forces of globalization and lack of congressional oversight.

All of these events demonstrated the strains and limitations facing the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which is the federal watchdog charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risks of serious injury or death from more than 15,000 types of consumer products under its jurisdiction.

Despite the enormous growth and increasing complexity of global trade over the past two decades, the CPSC has been largely underfunded. The CPSC now has fewer than half the employees it had in 1980, and its testing laboratory is nothing short of embarrassing.  Additionally, the CPSC has had to endure an exodus of experienced and highly competent staff in recent years. This is a shameful situation given that the CPSC bears significant responsibility for protecting America’s children.

With this in mind, Congress has moved toward addressing the issue. In December 2007, the House unanimously approved the Consumer Product Safety Commission Modernization Act, and the Senate passed its version of the bill in March 2008 by a 79-13 vote.

Under the bill, the budget for the CPSC would increase from the current $69 million to $100 million under the House bill and to $155 million under the Senate version. The legislation also provides increased funding to modernize the CPSC testing lab; the world’s strongest lead-level standard; mandatory third-party testing for many children’s products; and, tracking labels for children’s products to quicken and simplify the process of identifying overseas manufacturers and product recalls.

While Congress has been working on this issue, there is great and understandable concern among states that the legislation is not moving fast enough. In fact, there are now lead standard and toy safety bills pending in more than half of the state legislatures across the country.

While not as strong as the federal standard under consideration, Illinois and Michigan have already enacted new lead laws and Washington may soon follow. And, starting in January, California will become the first state to ban toys and other child-care products that contain more than trace amounts of phthalates.

The immense interest in this issue demonstrates its importance, and reveals how important it is for Congress to act swiftly. Without immediate action by Congress, we risk the chaotic situation of standards that vary from state to state.

In the end, the best course will be for Congress to take the strong and swift lead. There are some differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill that need to be ironed out. One of the most significant differences is the Senate’s call for the creation of a public Internet database that would empower the public with information about product safety information. This would allow parents to quickly obtain information about potential dangers to their children.

Congress has a responsibility to help parents to protect their children, so it must act quickly to address the many problems that have come to light in the last year. And, given the overwhelming support for legislation, there is little reason to leave children at risk any longer.
Butterfield is a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.