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Consumer Safety Panel Weakened

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News that shower curtains might make people sick is alerting consumers to the problem of toxins in plastics. A recent report by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice found that some curtains –- sold at major chain stores like Bed Bath & Beyond, K-mart, Sears, Target and Wal-Mart -– contain high concentrations of toxic chemicals like phthalates. These have been linked to reproductive defects and developmental problems in infants.

Parents pay attention when it comes to toxic substances and child safety. They were caught unawares by last year’s toxic toys incident — which led Mattel to recall millions of children’s products made in China. But this summer, concerned parents might hear some good news, because Congress is working to reauthorize and reform the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission was set up in 1973 to “protect the public from unreasonable risks of serious injury or death” from more than 15,000 varieties of consumer products. The agency is charged with enforcing mandatory standards for products, banning and recalling products, researching potential hazards and developing voluntary standards for industry.

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Congress_6733.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Over the years, the commission has grown weak. But only last year did the public begin to take notice. When the agency had to recall millions of children’s toys, it was unable to pass safety rules or take action against violators, The Wall Street Journal reported. A sharp decline in resources is one reason for the agency’s inadequacies. Three commissioners are supposed to run the agency, but for the last two years, there have been only two. Perhaps even worse, in the past several years, the staff has been cut by more than half, to about 400 employees.

Members of Congress have been trying to reauthorize the commission since last year’s toy recall. They hoped to have a new bill before Christmas 2007, but opposition from industry groups stalled the process. This summer, Congress is looking to arrive at a bill that will add staff, strengthen enforcement capabilities and increase transparency at the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Congress is now ironing out differences between House and Senate versions. The resulting legislation stands to overhaul a commission that hasn’t been reformed in generations. Consumer advocacy groups say the new bill could be influential, depending on what provisions make it through to the final version. It is expected in time for the July 4 recess.

A major provision now being debated would require companies to test for levels of toxins like lead and phthalates, before products go to market. “Currently,” said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety and senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America, “there is no pre-market testing required for products. If companies do it, they do it voluntarily. Does [voluntary testing] work? No.”

The Consumer Federation of America says it’s especially important for manufacturers of children’s products to do testing, and for that testing to be done by independent third parties. “There can be conflicts of interest when companies’ own labs test products,” said Weintraub. For example, “the conflict of identifying potential hazards versus selling the product as soon as possible.”

The Consumer Product Safety Commission says it also supports mandatory independent third-party testing -– with one caveat. Spokeswoman Julie Vallese said the agency isn’t sure that across-the-board mandatory testing is effective. “There’s the question of whether or not there’s a necessity to test every single product [if] voluntary standards become mandatory,” she said.

“What the agency wants to make sure of,” Vallese added, “is that in reauthorizing the legislation, what is being tested and what is being tested for makes sense.”

For example, Vallese questioned the need to test teddy bears for metals – which wouldn’t be expected to be used in their manufacturing; or the need to test toys for lead if that lead is used in circuitry on the inside of the products.

One amendment being debated would ban phthalates entirely from children’s toys. The American Chemistry Council, the lobbying group for the chemical industry, has spoken out against this. In a press release, the council’s vice president of products, Sharon Kneiss, said:

“Phthalates are among the most thoroughly studied products in the world, and have been reviewed by multiple regulatory bodies in the U.S. and Europe. …After all this study and review, no reliable scientific evidence has found phthalates to cause adverse human health effects.”

But the European Union banned phthalates from all toys for children under age three because of concerns over sexual development disruption. Exposure to phthalates affects production of the male sexual hormone testosterone, leading to lower levels. The EU’s Directorate on Health and Consumer Affairs called phthalates “a disrupter of the endocrine system.”

In addition, though the Consumer Product Safety Commission has said that phthalates in vinyl toys have “no demonstrated health risk,” last year the state of California banned toys and baby products containing more than trace amounts. The ban was instituted because scientific evidence showed that phthalates can interfere with hormone production, lead to early puberty and cause reproductive health problems.

Still, the American Chemistry Council says it supports reauthorization of the consumer safety legislation. “What the…bill will do is add muscle,” said Marian Stanley senior director and manager of the phthalates panel at the council.

A representative of the phthalates industry, Stanley is hopeful that chemical manufacturers won’t be hit with a slew of regulations. She says there’s a good chance that the resulting bill won’t threaten the phthalates industry. “This would not necessarily mean anything for phthalate manufacturers,” she said. “[Congress is] not necessarily looking at individual chemicals,” she said.

The new legislation –- however it ends up looking -– will strengthen the agency, through increased resources and funding, tougher standards for product safety and an increased ability to enforce those standards.

“It’s very significant,” said Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America. “It’s the most significant reform that there’s been in years and years. And it’s really important because our marketplace has been changing so rapidly.”

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