Jewish World Review Feb. 27, 2008 / 21 Adar I 5768
Recall agency needs help
By Vicki Lee Parker
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | (MCT) I recall a time when product recalls were infrequent.
But lately, hazardous toys and other household products are in the news almost daily. A huge increase in imports from China, where oversight is not as stringent as in the U.S., is partly to blame, as well as manufacturers that use lead paint on toys such as the Thomas trains.
Some consumer advocates say only a small percentage of dangerous products are actually removed from store shelves.
Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, recently released a study showing that manufacturers often wait nearly three years before telling the Consumer Product Safety Commission about defective products that can kill people. The government agency, which is in charge of protecting consumers from dangerous products, typically takes an additional seven months to warn the public, according to public documents examined by Public Citizen.
Last year, there were nearly 500 product recalls, including 61 related to children's products, according to Public Citizen.
As the parent of a young child, that scares me. Last week, Public Citizen gave worried parents something to do: Contact your senators and urge them to support a proposal that would boost funding for the Consumer Product Safety Commission and strengthen its power to protect us.
"The CPSC is hamstrung when it comes to alerting the public to dangers," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. "Essentially, it has to get the manufacturers' permission, which is absurd."Public Citizen pointed to a recent recall settlement involving Sears stoves to highlight the failings of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The stoves have caused more than 100 deaths and injuries when they tip over onto people as they slide pans out or place them on the oven door.
The ranges, sold by Sears from July 2, 2000, to Sept. 18, 2007, are made with a lighter steel that makes it easier for them to tip over. They should have been installed with brackets to secure them.
As part of the settlement, Sears agreed to notify customers who bought the affected ranges that they are entitled to have brackets installed for free. Public Citizen estimates that it will cost Sears $546 million to fix stoves in about 4 million homes.
At a news conference Wednesday, Claybrook said the CPSC has known about the dangers of unsecured stoves since 1980 but did little to alert the public. In her opinion, it took an Illinois law firm to do what the agency should have done.
My attempts to contact the Consumer Product Safety Commission were unsuccessful. But a commission spokesman told The New York Times that last year, the agency listed the possible tipping of stoves and furniture as one of the top five consumer hazards.
It recommended that consumers install brackets and urged the industry to improve safety standards.
Why didn't the commission do more and act more quickly? Like other government agencies, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has been shrinking as its responsibilities have grown. The commission has less than half the 800 workers it had when it was founded in 1973.
The Senate bill that Public Citizen wants consumers to support would increase the commission's resources and funding, toughen the penalties for manufacturers and give the commission more power to enforce recalls. A similar bill has survived challenges from the National Association of Manufacturers, which is worried about costs.
Cleary, it takes time to call our elected officials. But when I think about the amount of time it takes for me to research whether my 3-year-old's toys are covered with lead paint, making two phone calls doesn't sound so bad.
Besides, groups such as Public Citizen have made consumers' job a little easier. On its Web site, www.citizen.org, it has an easy-to-read comparison of the House and Senate bills that are being considered. The site has a draft letter that you can download and mail to your senators. Check out www.senate.gov for a wealth of information, including how to reach your senators.
By the way, the deadline for filing a claim in the Sears range settlement is Sept. 18. For details, visit www.searsrangesettlement.com or call (888) 952-9084.
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Vicki Lee Parker is a columnist for The News & Observer. Comment by clicking here.
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