Congress Plans More Oversight to Eliminate Hazardous Toys

Inquiry Focuses on Lead Paint, Magnets Found in Shipments From China

Lawmakers say it’s time to crack down on unqualified manufacturers and have launched an investigation into safety standards placed on children’s clothes and toys after a massive recall of imports from China.

The U.S. Senate will evaluate the effectiveness of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), an independent government agency responsible for regulating the sale and manufacture of more than 15,000 products. Additionally, the U.S. House of Representatives held an oversight hearing on Sept. 19 to look into the practices of toy companies that import products.

RC2 Corp.’s Thomas & Friends wooden train sets, Mattel’s Polly Pocket play sets and Batman action figures, and 83 types of Fisher-Price’s Big Bird, Elmo, Dora and Diego characters are among the toys being pulled off of shelves.

“Recent recalls of toys with dangerous levels of lead paint and small magnets that can come loose and be swallowed suggest that not enough is being done to ensure the safety of these items before they reach store shelves and the hands of America’s children,” Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said in a statement.

Collins, the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, initiated the investigation into the CPSC to determine whether the commission has the appropriate resources and authority to safeguard the nation’s children effectively from dangerous products. She said the results of the investigation may deem it necessary to devise new legislation and toughen standards and testing protocols to ensure children’s safety.

“We want to determine whether the federal government has established adequate safety standards that are applied consistently and effectively to these products, whether manufactured at home or abroad,” Collins said. “Parents should be assured that safeguards are effective in preventing hazardous toys from reaching their children.”

Recent scrutiny surrounding the CPSC for not catching these hazardous defects in toys before they made it into the hands of countless children has already revealed startling facts about operations within the commission. The CPSC has been stifled by bureaucracy, which has caused its staff and budget to shrink despite continuous expansion in the number of goods the United States produces as well as imports.

A Senate oversight hearing held March 21 revealed that Congress has cut funding to the CPSC over the years, and now annually appropriates roughly $62 million to the commission. Also, the commission’s staff of 900, which was in place 30 years ago, has steadily diminished to about 400, said Sally Greenberg, the senior product safety counsel for Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, in testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs, Insurance and Automotive Safety.

“The $39 million allocated to CPSC in 1977 would be worth $125 million today,” Greenberg testified. “Yet CPSC’s [2008] funding request of $63 million means that CPSC is funded at half of its original level in 1977, and the number of staff has consequently dropped by more than half.”

The limited size of its staff allows for only 15 inspectors to monitor the millions of toys that come in through U.S. ports and for less than 100 inspectors to monitor stores nationwide for defective products.

“CPSC simply doesn’t have the personnel to do more than a cursory look at imports coming into this country,” CPSC Commissioner Thomas Moore told the Senate in March. “As I have indicated, in the last several years we have lost 30 field personnel, largely as a result of budget cuts, who we have not been able to replace. This has impacted our entire field operation, including port inspections.”

The commission’s authority is also subdued by restrictions that cap fines for companies that knowingly release defective products at less than $2 million, which barely makes a dent in the budgets of multibillion-dollar corporations,” Greenberg said at a June hearing before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection. Greenberg added that she would support a bill that raised the maximum penalty from $1.85 million to a cap of $20 million.

The House is also looking into how dangerous products made overseas make their way onto American store shelves. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce will host a hearing on Sept. 19 through its Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Subcommittee Chairman Bobby Rush and the panel’s top Republican, Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida, sent information requests to 19 companies that collectively recalled more than 9 million lead-tainted toys and children’s jewelry items imported mostly from China.

“I am outraged that in 2007 lead-tainted products continue to endanger the health of our children,” said Rush, an Illinois Democrat, in a statement. “We have known for decades that lead paint can harm the brain development of young children and may contribute, later in life, to behavioral problems or even criminal activity according to growing research. We also know that children put everything into their mouths. If they swallow trinkets made with high quantities of lead, it can kill them.”

Claire’s Boutiques, Dollar General Merchandising, Mattel and Target were among the companies asked to provide information about which Chinese facilities manufactured the recalled products, what types of agreements-if any-they have with Chinese manufacturers to ban the use of lead and lead paint or limit usage to safe levels, and what steps they took to test or inspect imported children’s products before sending them to U.S. retailers.