CPSC Chair Tenenbaum: We're Not Trying To Play "Gotcha" With Manufacturers

Regular readers of Consumerist know that we cover a lot of recalls — from faulty booster seats to wine openers with potentially bloody consequences — many of them announced by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. We recently met with CPSC chair Inez Tenenbaum to discuss how the commission works with manufacturers on everything from the recall process to new standards on lead and drop-side cribs, and why some within the commission are attempting to scuttle its new products database.

ON THE CPSC’s PROCESS OF ISSUING A RECALL:
Most of our complaints come directly from companies. If they know that someone’s had a problem with their product, [the company] has 24 hours to report that to the agency. Most of our recalls are voluntary. A company comes to us, we work out a press release, and they voluntarily recall it.

Others come in from reports we receive through various sources. One of our key sources is emergency room data. We also receive information by going through death certificates that we purchase from the states. We also look at stories on the Internet, news stories, and look for information on persons injured from consumer products there. People have also called us on our hotline, which is a telephone number. We also receive information via the Internet. So we receive it from all sources and we look at those to see if there are emerging hazard trends. And if there are, then we get the product and we test it.

Consumerist: What about those situations where businesses aren’t as forthcoming?
Those are extremely rare… We have two legal standards. One is a substantial product hazard. We will ask you to stop sale, to recall it. We also have an imminent product hazard, that is a higher standard, and we can go to court to get the Justice Department to ask that the product stop sale or we can ultimately ban a product. We haven’t banned products in a number of years. Probably the one you might know are lawn darts. There was no way we could make lawn darts safe. They were sharp projectiles and so those were banned.

ON PEOPLE WHO SAY THE CPSC IS OVERLY CAUTIOUS WITH ITS RECALLS:
First of all, we have to have a reason. We can’t be arbitrary or capricious. We have to have a reason for a safety rule. And if we see a number of instances — you can have one or you can have a number — where we see that it’s a hazard, we can enforce it.

Also, most of the standards for products are voluntarily developed by the industry themselves. There are dozens of standards organizations… If you look at electrical product, you’re going to find an Underwriter’s Laboratory logo and hologram, just saying that this meets UL specifications.

So most of the standards are developed by the industry for product categories. And we work with them and work with the standards committees to come up with the good voluntary standards.

However, if we find that the voluntary standard — and this is under our law — is not strong enough to protect the safety of consumers, we then can write a mandatory standard.

ON RECENTLY ENACTED DROP SIDE CRIB STANDARDS:
Our crib standard is the toughest standard in the world. And I do believe that it will protect infants and toddlers in years to come and we will see fewer deaths. We recalled 11 million cribs over the last few years. Because the sides were detaching from the crib, they were creating a suffocation hazard. The mattress support was very weak…

So the crib, the one that we saw having these suffocation problems, the wood was weaker than the wood we’re requiring now. We allowed plastic hardware. We are going to have stronger hardware. And we require a test that we borrowed from Canada. It’s called the racking test. We also have a test that drops weights on the crib. We test not only the slat support, but the mattress supports. If it withstands all these tests — and our new cribs are withstanding it — then it’s safe for a baby to sleep in.

Consumerist: So a manufacturer could sell a drop-side crib in the U.S.?

If it meets the tests… And, you know, with the proper wood strength and hardware, they might come up with that. But it has to meet all these very rigorous tests. And the traditional drop-sides that we had on the market before this rule were not meeting these tests.

I went to the Hong Kong Toy Fair and walked through, and products are being designed now that are so creative in terms of safety. So I think you’re going to see many products that are going to be coming on the marketplace that really represent creativity in design and safety that we haven’t seen before.

ON THE TOPIC OF THE CPSC PRODUCT DATABASE & ATTEMPTS TO GUT FUNDING:
First of all, people need to know that Congress created that database… It was a Congressional mandate. And the reason they created that mandate is that witness after witness came in front of Congress, “If I only had known that children were dying in drop-side cribs… Had I only known that this was a hazard… If I had had the benefit of knowing other consumers’ experience, my child would be alive today.”

And so Congress created this publicly-searchable database so that we could make public all the data we were already receiving through the Internet, through other means.

And so people can go online; they can put in the name of the product… tell us the nature of the injury. We don’t make their personal information public, but the great majority are telling us, yes, you can give my name and all my contact information to a manufacturer.

And then a manufacturer’s representative will get in touch with them… It’s very encouraging. It’s pretty phenomenal to see how many people are already looking at the site. And right now there are more than 1,600 incident reports available for consumers to view. It’s very interesting to go on it because people will say, “this is what happened when I used this product.” And we want to know if there’s been harm or if there was a potential for harm.

It was a hard-fought battle here at the Commission and there were allegations made that simply are not true. That we were going to post inaccurate information that would harm companies. And we have not done that. Nor would we do that. We hear from the consumer. We look into it. And the manufacturer has the ability to, on their private portal, to respond. And they can talk to us confidentially and then we will write their response online if they want us to reply.

NHTSA has a database. They’ve had it for years. And NHTSA doesn’t even have a private portal for car manufacturers. We’re the only federal database that has a private portal to allow manufacturers to make comments.

Consumerist: There’s been some exaggeration as to the cost of the database.

Right. Two of my colleagues have alleged that the database cost $29 million. And the database cost $3 million… the $29 million was to allow us to just revamp our entire IT and information gathering system that hadn’t been updated in years. And we needed it desperately. We had silos. So when we get information from, for example, the emergency rooms, that was a silo. Many people had information just on their laptops. Now you have a central repository like a data warehouse. All the data feeds into [it] and everyone in the agency can access that data. You can tell where in the process the investigation is. So the database did not cost $29 million…

It’s really just, I think, partisan showmanship for the House to try to close down the database. I don’t think the Congress, ultimately, will do that.

ON MORE STRINGENT LEAD STANDARDS:
Consumerist: The allowable lead level is shrinking from 300 parts/million to 100.
I wanted you to know that I had asked Congress, along with unanimous support of my colleagues here, to make the 100 parts per million lead limit prospectively applied only. And so far they have not acted. So the lead limit, when it drops August the 14th of this year, will require all children’s products to have no more than 100 parts per million. It’s gone from 300 to 100. So we wanted that not applied retroactively and I’m still hopeful that Congress can do something, but that hope is dimming. I wanted it to not be retroactively applied so that, to help companies that had inventory already in the market.

Now many companies didn’t even stop at 300 parts per million, they went straight to the 100 parts per million. Many toy manufacturers. So they’ve been in compliance for a number of years. But there are those that still have inventory that has 300 parts per million which, until August the 14th, is compliant. And we were hoping that Congress would help industry, but they haven’t moved yet.

This lead limit is the highest, is the toughest standard in the world, though Canada went to 90 parts per million for mouthable or swallowable. children’s products. And Illinois has a warning that if it has more than 40 parts per million, you have to warn the consumer.

One of the things that has been contentious since I’ve been here is the enactment of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. It was passed in 2008 and I came in June, July of 2009.

In the last few months, where we’ve had votes on implementation of one more thing under the Act, the minority Commissioners argued “We need to delay…. We haven’t done enough study…. We need to pause.” And this is just a tactic not to implement the CPSIA. This pause and delay is just a way to circumvent the law and not require testing and certification of children’s products or not to drop the lead limit down to 100.

So our meetings become very partisan. And I find this regrettable… Because this is a Congressional mandate, this law. And the reason I believe that Congress passed this law is that they felt like the agency was too lax on enforcement and too lax in terms of recognizing that the world had changed.

Consumerist: A number of our readers wanted to know about imported dinner plates that might have lead in the glaze.

That falls under the FDA’s jurisdiction, and they have a 90 parts per million standard for anything used for food, whether it’s for adults or children.

[Clarification: Any component of the glaze that can make its way into food during the use of dinner plates would fall under FDA's jurisdiction. Lead is sometimes used as a component of ceramic glazes in wares used for food. FDA has established limits on the amounts of leachable lead in dinner plates and other ceramicware, referred to as action levels, to ensure that ceramicware is safe for use with food.]

ON PROACTIVELY WORKING WITH MANUFACTURERS:
I like to be proactive, which is why we created a new office, the Office of Education, Global Outreach, and Small Business Ombudsman, to work proactively with manufacturers and foreign governments so they don’t manufacture a product with a defect or a product that doesn’t meet the rules.

We believe in safety at the source — that means look at your raw products — safety in manufacturing, and then make sure that you understand our rules. We just opened an office in Beijing, our first foreign office. We have two people staffed there. There are over 1,000 people they’ve already trained in just a few months… They make sure [manufacturers] understand what our rules are. So being proactive and protective is my philosophy. Not trying to be “gotcha.” Caught you when you’ve already spent millions of dollars to design and manufacture a product. Let’s be proactive and protective and work with industry so that [they] can manufacture safe products and be successful.

As Martin Luther King said, justice delayed is justice denied. I believe that safety delayed is safety denied. And if we’re proactive and protective and we can be… make sure that consumers are safe. And I’m hopeful that as we move out of the implementation of the CPSIA rules, we will have more time to spend with education and advocacy and working closely with industry to make sure they understand upfront what is required of them.