By David Michaels

In a few short months, the country has awakened to several potential hazards associated with Chinese toys. Mattel and other manufacturers have already recalled millions of toys, some for lead paint and others because they contained magnets that, if swallowed, could cause severe injuries. Now, Louise Story of New York Times reports that the Walt Disney Company will conduct lead tests on 65,000 toys and other children’s products made by 2,000 companies that license Disney characters.

Things have gotten so bad that toy manufacturers are actually asking for federal regulation. According to NY Times reporters Story and Eric Lipton:

Facing broadening questions about the safety of toys sold in the United States — particularly those made in China — as the holiday season approaches, the industry is asking that these kinds of tests be required of toy companies, big and small.

There is enormous pain in the industry that has been generated by the lead-in-paint recalls,” said Frederick B. Locker, a lawyer for the Toy Industry Association, whose members include Mattel, Hasbro, Lego and hundreds of other manufacturers and importers. “Nothing is 100 percent. But this will tighten it, enhance it, bolster it.”

It is not surprising that the toy makers now need the Consumer Product Safety Commission to step in and assure American parents that their children’s toys are safe. One of the reasons the manufacturers are in this mess is that the CPSC has been a particularly weak federal regulatory agency, something the toy makers have exploited for years.

Last week, Nicolas Casey and Andy Pasztor reported in the Wall Street Journal that toymaker Mattel is essentially thumbing its nose at the CPSC. Even though recent events have shown that toys not meeting safety standards can cause children’s deaths, Mattel’s CEO thinks the company can decide which rules to follow:

Mattel Chairman and Chief Executive Robert Eckert said in an interview that the company discloses problems on its own timetable because it believes both the law and the commission’s enforcement practices are unreasonable. Mattel said it should be able to evaluate hazards internally before alerting any outsiders, regardless of what the law says.

Mattel has a history of tardiness when it comes to reporting claims of potentially hazardous product defects to the CPSC – something manufacturers must do within 24 hours, with few exceptions. In at least three major cases, the WSJ reports, Mattel took months to gather information and report it to the agency. It has been fined $1.1 million for failing to promptly report a fire hazard involving its Power Wheels minicars and $975,000 for being slow to notify CPSC of incidents involving loose screws in its Little People Animal Sounds Farm.

Illinois Senator Dick Durbin calls CPSC a “toothless tiger” that’s unable to find offenders or get them to change their conduct. Another recent article, this one in the New York Times, shows how much an already weak agency has been de-fanged under the Bush Administration.

In another NY Times article, Lipton reports that even as imports have surged and created an ever-greater oversight challenge, the agency’s staff has been pared down from what was already an inadequate number. It takes much longer for the agency to determine whether certain products are at fault and recommend corrective action, and compliance investigations dropped 45% over the course of three years. This is probably fine with agency officials, who have also “blocked enforcement actions, weakened industry oversight rules and promoted voluntary compliance over safety mandates.”

For instance, former agency head Harold D. Stratton moved to reverse an enforcement action seeking to force the Daisy Manufacturing Company to remove 7.2 million air-powered BB guns from the market. More than 15 people, most of them children, had died because BBs became lodged in what appeared to be an empty chamber, agency research found, but Stratton rejected the recall plan, citing the company’s “precarious financial condition.”

Then there’s John Gibson Mullan, who was a former lawyer for the ATV industry before becoming CPSC’s director of compliance. Once at CPSC, he argued against a ban on the sale of ATVs for children – something that did not sit well with a colleague:

Robin L. Ingle, then the agency’s hazard statistician and A.T.V. injury expert, was dumbfounded. Her months of research did not support Mr. Mullan’s analysis. Yet she would not get to offer a rebuttal.

“He had hijacked the presentation,” Ms. Ingle said in an interview. “He was distorting the numbers in order to benefit industry and defeat the petition. It was almost like he still worked for them, not us.”

Perhaps the incident that shows most clearly that the Bush Administration wants the CPSC to stand up for manufacturers rather than public health was Bush’s attempt to appoint Michael Baroody as CPSC chair. Baroody was Executive Vice President of the National Association of Manufacturers, and had worked for that organization since 1994. A coalition of health advocacy groups prepared a report explaining why Baroody was the wrong person to head the agency; it describes NAM’s efforts to narrow CPSC’s authority, weaken its regulatory enforcement powers, and water down its product safety and disclosure rules.

Democrats were vocal in expressing their concern about Baroody’s industry ties, and Bush withdrew the nomination. Without a chair, though, the CPSC has been unable to conduct many of its activities – which is probably just the way this administration likes it.

But now, the chickens have come home to roost. The weak CPSC did nothing to force manufacturers to test their toys and millions have had to be recalled. More importantly, parents no longer trust Mattel and other toy makers, and the manufacturers need the federal government to assure parents their toys are safe. But can a severely weakened federal agency rouse itself to act even when industry’s interests are stake?

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

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