Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bill targets toy safety

|Chicago Tribune reporters

WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators settled months of debate over product safety on Monday, and in nearly every detail—including lead levels in toys, safety information for consumers and fines for violating the new rules—stricter standards won out.

Proponents called the agreement the most aggressive overhaul in decades of America's consumer safety system. It was announced by a bipartisan conference committee and could pass the House and Senate as soon as this week. President George W. Bush is expected to sign it.

The deal would require manufacturers and importers to subject toys and other nursery products to strict safety tests before they hit store shelves. Some companies with sophisticated labs could conduct the tests themselves, a provision consumer groups opposed.

The legislation would phase in a near-ban on lead in products designed for children 12 and younger and create an easily searchable database of consumer complaints about a product's safety. The law would set an allowable lead standard of 600 parts per million within 180 days, 300 ppm after one year, and 100 ppm after three years. The precise amount of lead that can cause harm in a child remains a matter of debate. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission would review the limit and could lower it still further.

It would increase the size and budget of the agency, expand government oversight of imported goods, impose new safety standards on all-terrain vehicles and ban six controversial compounds used in plastics. It would also protect whistle-blowers exposing faulty products, allow state attorneys general to pull dangerous products from store shelves and increase fines for safety violations to as high as $15 million.

The legislation grew out of hearings prompted by a Pulitzer Prize-winning Tribune investigation that documented how the CPSC failed to promptly notify American families about deadly hazards lurking in toys, cribs and other children's products. Several Illinois lawmakers played key roles in crafting the bill, including three Democrats, Sen. Dick Durbin and Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Bobby Rush, whose name is attached to the final version of the bill.

"It's a really strong, strong bill," said Schakowsky, who has focused on product safety reform for much of her House career. "It really, in many ways, is the birth of a new agency that will have much broader authority, particularly to keep our children safe."

Durbin said the bill "sets safety standards so we can avoid the nightmare we faced last Christmas"—when recalls and reports of lead in popular toys frayed consumers' nerves.

Public database

Disclosure of safety complaints in a publicly searchable database is a historic shift from the current system, which was set up three decades ago to protect manufacturers' reputations. To obtain such information now, consumers must file requests under the Freedom of Information Act, and manufacturers can block or delay release of that information. The new law allows manufacturers to respond to complaints and lets the CPSC remove those it finds to be inaccurate.

"This database will let consumers learn more about hazards and make more informed decisions when trying to purchase a product," said Rachel Weintraub, an attorney for the Consumer Federation of America who lobbied for the bill. "The goal is to end the manufacturers' veto on information."

Jim Neill, a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers, countered that the database will allow "rumor and innuendo" to smear safe products.

While Neill says his organization supports a stronger CPSC, he lamented that the bill could have "unintended consequences that could potentially harm American employers and employees."

'Patchwork of laws' criticized

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is upset that that law leaves room for states to pass their own, stricter safety standards rather than ruling that the new federal rules trump them, said Thomas Myers, an attorney for the chamber.

"Manufacturers are going to have a difficult time because they're going to have a patchwork of laws to deal with," Myers said. "Theoretically, they can have 50 different laws their products have to comply with."

Rush, who underwent cancer surgery in March, plans to return to Capitol Hill this week and hopes to see the measure pass before the House and Senate adjourn for an August recess. In a statement, he lauded colleagues "who worked virtually around the clock to ensure that this important piece of legislation becomes law this year."

Some consumer groups complained that several months passed between the Senate's approval of the bill in March and the conference committee agreement. But Durbin said he was impressed.

"This really has been a pretty good run, to dramatically change consumer safety law in a year," he said. "That's pretty good, by Washington standards."

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