February 7, 2008 The Pump Handle 1Comment

We’ve written before about how the Consumer Product Safety Commission lacks both the authority and the will to come down hard on companies that keep their unsafe products on the market. Now, Public Citizen has tallied up the time that elapsed between the dates when the CPSC learned of several dangerous products and the dates when the agency issued warnings about the hazards. Their results will probably worry anyone who’s purchased a coffee maker, bicycle, or infant swing over the past few years.

Public Citizen studied CPSC settlements published in the Federal Register, a total of 46 cases since 2002 in which the agency fined manufacturers for failing to follow the law requiring prompt reporting of product dangers. The products in question included

… coffee makers and vacuum cleaners prone to catching fire, treadmills that spontaneously accelerated to an Olympic miler’s pace, all-terrain vehicles with throttles that became stuck in the “go” position, bicycles with forks that could break under normal use, and infant swings that could cause strangulation and were implicated in the deaths of six infants.

The companies weren’t just a little tardy in reporting such problems to the CPSC; they took an average of 993 days – 2.7 years – after learning of safety problems to let the CPSC in on the secret. Then, it took another seven months, on average, before the CPSC release this information to the public.

The delay isn’t just because the CPSC under the Bush administration is more sympathetic to manufacturers of dangerous products than to consumers who might be harmed by them. The CPSC needs agreement from the manufacturer – or else court approval – in order to disclose information about dangerous products, and it can take months to hash out an arrangement with a company that knows it has little to lose in standing up to this weak agency. Public Citizen also points out if the CPSC did more of its own product testing and inspections, it wouldn’t have to wait 2.7 years for manufacturers to get around to telling them about hazardous defects. The group gives Congress some recommendations as they craft the legislation to reauthorize the CPSC:

• Provide the CPSC with the freedom to inform the public about risks promptly. Currently, the CPSC cannot act unilaterally to inform the public about hazards without risking lawsuits by manufacturers. Congress should give the agency the ability to provide critical information to the public without undue interference and delays by industry.
• Grant authority to levy higher fines and seek effective criminal penalties. The CPSC’s current cap on civil penalties of $1.8 million per violation of reporting requirements is a pittance compared to the cost of conducting recalls. This gives companies an incentive to leave the agency in the dark about defects. Congress should eliminate the cap or raise it to at least $100 million per violation.
• Provide the CPSC with a significantly larger budget and staff. The agency received a meager $63 million in 2007 to protect the public from dangers posed by millions of products. Congress should boost it to at least $150 million.
• Give state attorneys general broader enforcement powers. A major criticism of the CPSC is its failure to enforce the law effectively. Congress should allow state attorneys general to enforce the law and give them authority to seek all of the remedies available to the CPSC.

In roughly one more year, we should have new leadership at the CPSC – someone, we hope, who won’t be content to let dangerous products stay on store shelves for three years after a problem is identified. Congress should make sure this person has the authority and resources necessary to truly protect consumers from unsafe products.

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