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Public Citizen Presses Agency for Data Showing Its Record on Notifying the Public About Dangerous Products

July 11, 2008

Public Citizen Presses Agency for Data Showing Its Record on Notifying the Public About Dangerous Products

Consumer Product Safety Commission Erroneously Denied Information Request

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Public Citizen is appealing a blanket rejection by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that sought information about how long the agency takes to warn the public about dangerous products after it learns about potential hazards.

Public Citizen submitted the FOIA request in January, shortly after issuing a report revealing that the CPSC took an average of 210 days to warn the public about hazards for which the agency had levied fines over the previous six years. The CPSC said that Public Citizen’s report was not representative of its typical performance. But Public Citizen had used all of the publicly available data, and the agency did not furnish any materials to support its claims.

To gain better insight into the agency’s performance in informing the public about dangerous products, Public Citizen in January requested documents indicating the dates on which manufacturers and the CPSC became aware of hazards and the dates on which the CPSC informed the public about them.

The CPSC’s response cited nine legal provisions that, the agency claimed, collectively prohibited the disclosure of each portion of every single document sought by Public Citizen. Among its myriad excuses, the agency even cited its own lassitude. It noted that it must take “reasonable steps” to ensure that information it discloses is fair and accurate, and the agency simply hasn’t done so. “The Commission has not taken the required ‘reasonable steps’ with respect to the information,” the response said. Public Citizen’s appeal notes that the information sought was primarily furnished to the CPSC by manufacturers about their own products. Therefore, the agency should safely be able to assume its accuracy.

In its grab bag of reasons for rejecting the request, the CPSC also cited the need to shield documents that would reveal intra-agency thought processes, trade secrets or the techniques used in law enforcement investigations. Public Citizen’s appeal observes that such information could easily be redacted.

“In concluding that the CPSC is far too slow to inform the public of hazardous products, we analyzed every available piece of data,” said David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “It is ridiculous for the agency to accuse us of cherry-picking the data and then refuse to give us the information we need to do a comprehensive study.”

The FOIA appeal says that Public Citizen will accept as a satisfactory response a simple chart indicating the dates on which manufacturers, the agency and the public were informed of safety hazards resulting in product recalls. The appeal notes that the CPSC’s most recent annual budget request to Congress references performance histories based on data similar to that which Public Citizen seeks.

“This episode only underscores the CPSC’s inability to provide the public with critical information,” Arkush said. “This is why Congress should finalize pending legislation that would create a public database that consumers can use to sidestep the bureaucracy and warn each other about product hazards directly.”

To read Public Citizen’s letter of appeal, the CPSC’s denial of the organization’s FOIA request, and the organization’s FOIA request, go to  https://www.citizen.org/publications/release.cfm?ID=7588.