Today the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection will hold a hearing on the highly contested Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA).
Since the bill’s inception in February, this bill has yet to improve safety and done much to frustrate businesses and consumers. Onerous testing requirements, confusing regulations, and garage sale restrictions are just some of the problems associated with this confusing new law.
This law was a response to the lead scares which surfaced during the Christmas shopping season of 2007. Stories about lead recalls on popular toys like Thomas the Tank Engines and Polly Pocket dolls flooded the media and prompted regulatory action. However, in an effort to protect children from harmful products, Congress overreached and passed a sweeping law with regulations on many products which do not pose a threat to children.
One provision of this new law is the restrictions on certain chemicals called phthalates. They are what make rubber ducks sqeezable, garden hoses flexible, and rain boots squishable. Phthalates can be found all over your house in a wide variety of useful consumer goods. These plasticizing chemicals have been used in products for over 50 years and have never been proven to be harmful to humans. They have gone through rigorous testing by several government agencies including the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
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But regardless of their safety record, unfounded health scares from media hype pressured Congress into including phthalates restrictions in the CPSIA. Even after the ban passed, government scientists continued to testify to their safety. A recent NPR broadcast, “Public Concern Not Science, Prompts Plastics Ban” quoted CPSC scientist Marilyn Wind who stated the Commission was opposed to the ban because "there was not a risk of injury to children."
Banning a safe and tested substance is problematic for a number of reasons. The first is that this precautionary effort will not help to make our children any safer. In fact, it could actually expose our kids to an even greater risk—the risk of the unknown. While the phthalates used in toys have received extensive government testing, the alternative plastic softeners have not. In fact, none of the alternatives have been tested by a U.S. government agency.
In addition to increasing risk, another problem with banning safe chemicals is the high cost to businesses, especially small businesses. The testing procedure for phthalates can only be done using the expensive laboratory procedure known as Gas-Chromatography. These testing costs can range from hundreds to several thousand dollars for each product. This procedure also requires the destruction of the sample product. This means that small business manufacturers and retailers who do not produce in mass quantities will be required to sacrifice a large percentage of their inventory. While many of the large businesses and manufacturers can afford this testing, these costs have the potential to put family owned manufacturers and local toy makers out of business.
I am a true believer in the importance of product safety; however, I do not believe that taking safe products off our shelves will make children any safer. In this midst of this economic recession, the government should be looking for ways to help businesses prosper instead of burdening them with additional and unnecessary costs. To help alleviate some of the high testing cost burdens on local and family owned businesses, the CPSC should limit the scope of testing requirements to only those products that present a risk for children.
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The newly instated Consumer Product Safety Commissioner, Inez Tenenbaum, is the only scheduled witness for Thursday’s hearing. The implementation of this new law is certainly her most daunting and important task. This hearing is a necessary step towards fixing this misguided law.