January 10, 2008 The Pump Handle 0Comment

Congress left town last month without passing legislation that would overhaul the Consumer Product Safety Commission, whose weakness has been apparent in recent problems with toys containing lead, dangerous magnets, and a chemical that metabolizes into the so-called date rape drug gamma hydroxy butyrate. They did pass a ban on industry-sponsored travel (after the Washington Post reported on trips for CPSC officials sponsored by the toy industry), and they gave the CPSC an $80 million budget for the next fiscal year, which represents the agency’s biggest budget increase in 30 years.

The Washington Post’s Annys Shin reports that the money “will go toward additional staff and improvements to its antiquated testing facilities.” In a separate article, she focuses on one retiring CPSC staff person who will be hard to replace:

Robert L. Hundemer, the man who unwittingly became a symbol of the nation’s underfunded product safety system, retired Thursday after more than 25 years of government service.

In the midst of last year’s toy recalls, Hundemer, an engineering technician with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, became known as the nation’s sole full-time toy tester, referred to in speeches and news accounts only by his first name, “Bob.”

Hundemer decided that, at age 61, it was time to move on. He leaves behind an agency less than half the size it was when he started in 1980 and a testing facility in Gaithersburg that once was spacious but now is cramped and run down, infested with rodents and plagued by rotted window frames. …

His primary duties at the CPSC included testing toys for small parts that small children might choke on, including dropping the toys from different heights to see if they broke. Last summer, he told a New York Times reporter who came to tour the testing facility that his modest domain was “the toy lab for all of America — for all of the United States government!”

The agency has other employees, including chemists who test toys for lead, spokeswoman Julie Vallese said. But when the Times story ran in September, Hundemer was identified in a photo caption as “the sole full-time tester for toys on the market in the United States.” There he was, one genial, shortish, gray-haired man standing between the children of America and the rising tide of imported toys.

Bob was obviously committed to his job. As the agency starts the long-overdue process of increasing staffing levels, they’ll need to address the problem of how to attract such committed employees now that the agency’s weakness has been exposed in dozens of news stories.

Another item on the agency’s lengthy list of long-overdue tasks is addressing waterproofing sprays that can cause respiratory problems. CPSC did announce a recall for the Stand n’ Seal spray after it was implicated in two deaths and other serious injuries, but other sprays containing the same fluoropolymer are still on the market, reports Eric Lipton in the New York Times. Reports filed with poison control centers suggest that the thousands of consumers are likely to have experienced respiratory problems after using the spray. Reading labels won’t necessarily help consumers avoid the hazard, either; since the chemical isn’t considered hazardous at the concentrations in which it’s used, federal law doesn’t require it to appear on product packaging.

Public health officials in Michigan thought the problem should be addressed, but they didn’t get much help from the CPSC:

In October 2006, the director of the Michigan Department of Community Health, Janet Olszewski, wrote to Nancy A. Nord, the acting chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, urging her to address the public health issue, one of several such requests.

Henry A. Spiller, a toxicologist and the director of the Kentucky Regional Poison Center in Louisville, who also has urged the agency to investigate, said: “There really has been no interest or effort to investigate the root cause of this. When we talk to them, we get no action.”

Julie Vallese, a spokeswoman for the product safety commission, said the agency had received such requests and agreed that the topic merited attention. But a shortage of money has prevented it from doing the work, Ms. Vallese said.

Congress increased the agency’s budget by nearly 30 percent before adjourning this year. New money may allow research on the products, she added. “The agency shares the concern of those people on the front line,” she said, referring to emergency room doctors and staffs at poison control centers.

Michigan went ahead and acted on its own. It negotiated directly with the distributor of two of the waterproofing products that had been linked to respiratory problems (Jobsite Heavy Duty Bootmate and Rocky Boot and Weather Maker), and convinced the company to stop selling the products. At least one product, Kenyon Water Repellent, is still on the market – and the lack of labeling makes it hard to know how many other fluoropolymer-containing sprays are out there. If you’re using this type of product, do it outdoors and leave the items there until the chemical has dried completely.

Of course, this is just one hazard out of many that CPSC has failed to address appropriately. Let’s hope the infusion of funds will improve things.

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