Senate Talks Shopping; CPSC Haunted by Ghosts from Past

| by Andrew Langer

Today, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's product safety subpanel will convene a hearing on holiday shopping and the oversight of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).


This hearing conjures memories of the ghost of Christmas past. During the 2007 holiday shopping season a slew of media stories appeared warning of “toxic” toys on American stores’ shelves. Parents were alarmed by reports of imported Chinese toys contaminated with high levels of lead paint and other toxic substances.

The storm of media attention over recalls of some popular holiday toys like Thomas the Tank Engine and Polly Pocket dolls attracted the attention of Congress. This led to passage of a well-intended disaster called the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA).

One of the goals of today’s hearing – “Oversight of the Consumer Product Safety Commission: Product Safety in the Holiday Season” – is to examine the implementation of the CPSIA, a process that has proved to be nothing short of a regulatory nightmare for both industry and government.  Although well intentioned, this law resulted in a series of unintended consequences.

The CPSIA has burdened retailers with inefficient and expensive testing requirements. The law mandates that all products intended for use by children undergo expensive third party testing for lead and phthalates at great cost to businesses, regardless of the risk of exposure. These tests can total up to several thousand dollars per product. For many small businesses, these costs are high enough to put them out of business.

In addition to incurring high testing costs, retailers are still sitting on thousands of dollars of unsold inventory as a result of the CPSIA’s retroactive regulations. Even those within the Commission recognize a problem. In a letter to House members, CPSC Commissioner Nancy Nord stated, "This has cost the country's economy billions of dollars, stranding safe inventory that cannot be sold, with questionable safety payback to consumers."

And the safety payoffs for consumers remain “questionable” indeed. Are the products on our shelves any safer than they were two years ago? Not likely. In fact, they may even be more dangerous.

Despite a clean bill of health from government agencies including the CPSC and the National Toxicology Program (NTP), an amendment restricting the use of certain phthalates was added to the CPSIA as a result of some well-propagated health scares.

Congress’ kneejerk reaction resulted in a temporary prohibition on certain safe and tested phthalates in children’s items that can be mouthed. Instead of reviewing the scientific facts on these chemicals, many lawmakers caved to media hype. Had lawmakers done their due diligence, they would have recognized the strong safety record of these phthalates.

We are now left in a situation where safe products are banned with no acceptable alternative and manufacturers have now been forced to use substitute products which are less tested. In fact, none of the alternatives to phthalates have been properly risk assessed by a government agency.

Fortunately, the law mandates that the CPSC conduct a scientific review on certain phthalates and their substitutes. The conclusion of this review will serve as the basis for a final ruling on the use of phthalates in children’s products. This review is currently underway, but in the meantime, we are left with little certainty that our children’s toys under the tree are safe.

Let’s hope that this hearing can shed some light on the CPSIA’s problems. Unless they are properly addressed, the ghost of Christmas future paints a grim picture of those holiday shopping seasons yet to come. But, one question surrounding the ideological push slouching toward green protectionism is who really is the party of NO in Washington this Christmas?