Are cheap Chinese-made toys worth the risk? Parents who have watched the recent recalls of millions of action figures may be thankful for the child-friendly filter of Washington.
Or are they fooling themselves? According to consumer advocates and members of Congress, the federal agency that is supposed to protect Little Johnny from toxic Thomas the Tank Engines is woefully underfinanced, understaffed and ill-equipped to regulate the onslaught of toys and other products imported from China. Indeed, the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) relies heavily on the industry to police itself. "They don't have the resources, or, in some cases, even the authority to do it themselves," Don Mays, a veteran product safety expert at Consumers Union, said of the agency.
The CPSC was created in 1972 to protect the public against "unreasonable risks" from consumer products that now contribute to 27,000 American deaths and 33 million injuries a year. Even as the number of domestic and imported goods exploded, the agency has undergone drastic cuts in budget and staff the deepest of any health and safety agency, says the Consumer Federation of America. Only 15 trained inspectors regularly monitor goods at U.S. ports, where hundreds of millions of toys about three quarters from China come in yearly. Fewer than 100 inspectors have to cover the rest of the country, scouring store shelves for safety problems among the 15,000 products regulated by CPSC.
With little policing power, the agency is largely dependent on the good faith of profit-minded toy companies to remove hazardous products. By law, they must report safety concerns within 24 hours of their discovery, a process that usually results in a voluntary recall, like the large number of Chinese-made toys pulled in recent months. Ed Mierzwinski of U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), calls this self-regulation. "It presumes that the laws are being complied with unless the CPSC is notified that they are not," he said.
It is not quite so simple because the CPSC can impose fines for failure to report problems. But the penalties are capped at $1.83 million, which critics consider a pittance compared to those levied by other consumer protection agencies and far too small to deter a large toy manufacturer that can ring up daily sales of millions of dollars.
Politics kept the commission from even exerting the small leverage it has. When the CPSC's chairman quit in July 2006, leaving just a pair of members, President Bush waited until March 2007 to fill the vacancy. But his nominee, a business group lobbyist with a reputation for hostility to safety regulations, ran into confirmation problems. He withdrew his nomination in late May. The President has not filled the vacancy, prompting Senator Mark Pryor to accuse him of increasing risks to children of dangerous products put on shelves "unchecked." The Arkansas Democrat pushed through legislation this month empowering the CPSC for another six months.
Acting Chairman Nancy Nord, who announced the Mattel recall of 9 million toys last week, touted the CPSC's "effective system of checks and balances to prevent unsafe products from being sold." But even she has recommended reforms to Congress, including a new civil penalty cap of $10 million. Her proposals are among the many to strengthen the CPSC as the challenge presented by Chinese-made toys has underlined its weaknesses. PIRG's Mierzwinski recommends a simple first step: "Why doesn't the President nominate a safety advocate?"