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Congress puts consumers first with sweeping reforms

Flickr photo / Don Solo

For American consumers, this has been the year of living dangerously. A record number of product recalls this year and last — many involving dangerous toys — put American children and families at greater risk than ever before. But with the U.S. Senate passing the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act Thursday night, after the House passed it Wednesday, there may finally be reason to think that things might get better.

As David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division, put it: “The overwhelming support the bill received in Congress sends a strong message that protecting American consumers is above partisan politics.”

Along with doubling the budget of the Consumer Product Safety Commission over the next several years and increasing the fine that can be levied against makers of hazardous products, the act also virtually bans lead and phthalates in toys. It also creates a public database that will allow consumers to look up information and complaints that have been lodged about products.

Annys Shin has a good recap in the Washington Post. The bill passed the Senate 89-3 and now awaits President Bush’s signature.

The measure passed 424-1 in the House, with the only nay vote coming from Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the former presidential candidate who is known to oppose most government intervention in the marketplace. Nine members of the House did not cast a vote on the bill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi praised the legislation as a way to help ensure the safety of our children:

Today the New Direction Congress is asserting our responsibility to protect children from dangerous toys. Think of that? Shouldn’t that be an oxymoron? It should be a given that toys are not dangerous.

You can read Pelosi’s comments here.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act isn’t perfect but it does signal a shift in priorities. It will be up to future administrations and Congress to continue the effort.

It would be unrealistic to think that this one bill is the magic pill for 30 years of neglect. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency responsible for keeping hazardous products off our shelves, has suffered from a serious lack of resources, authority and an uncomfortable coziness with the manufacturing industry it was supposed to regulate.

At the same time, major U.S. corporations have cut costs by shifting manufacturing plants to overseas sweatshops where workers are paid pennies an hour and safety regulations often take a back seat to cutting costs.

For example, in China, where 94 percent of the toys recalled in 2007 were made, the pressure to cut costs drives many manufacturers and subcontractors to use lead paint, which costs two-thirds less than paint with lower levels of lead.

Two years ago, 4-year old Jarnell Brown of Minneapolis found a small, heart-shaped charm that had been packaged with a new pair of Reebok sneakers. He did what a lot of little boys might do when they find something pretty and shiny – he put it in his mouth and swallowed it.

That small trinket was 99 percent lead and might as well have been a loaded gun. A few days after going to the hospital with severe flu-like symptoms, which included dehydration and vomiting, Jarnell was dead. Despite rules in place to protect him from dangerous products, the lead charm given away with those shoes had more than 1,650 times the amount of lead considered safe for children.

The system has already failed Jarnell and thousands of other children, but with the passage this week of the CPSC reform bill it may not be too late for the children who will be receiving toys next holiday season and beyond.