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Image: Empty toy shelves
Ross D. Franklin  /  AP file
Because of massive product recalls, many shelves in the toy section were bare last year. New legislation will make safety a priority.
By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com
updated 8/14/2008 2:59:41 PM ET 2008-08-14T18:59:41

Your world is about to become significantly safer. On Thursday, President Bush signed a bill that is considered to be the strongest consumer protection legislation in decades. This is good news for all of us, especially our children.

“It’s a huge victory,” says Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety at the Consumer Federation of America. “This is a public interest win over special interests. It’s a consumer win over big industry.”

Consumer advocates spent years pressing Congress to strengthen product safety laws and give the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) the authority and resources it needed to prevent dangerous products from coming to market. But until now, nothing happened.

“The toy industry and the manufacturers were successful over the last 20 years in getting Congress to look the other way while the CPSC nearly died from neglect,” says Ed Mierzwinski, director of consumer programs at U.S. PIRG.

Lawmakers were forced to face reality last year after millions of toys were recalled because of lead paint and lethal magnets. Angry parents demanded action.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission Improvement Act of 2008 will greatly improve the safety of children’s products and give the commission the muscle it needs to protect all consumers from unsafe products.

“It’s a new day when the CPSC is restored to being a strong regulator, no longer something industry can manipulate,” Mierzwinski says.

The new law nearly doubles CPSC funding by the year 2014. The agency will be able to build a new testing lab and add more than 100 staff positions. CPSC will soon have full-time inspectors at the major ports of entry looking for dangerous products before they can enter the country.

It will also have the power to impose much larger civil penalties on companies that break the rules. The maximum fine goes from $1.8 to $15 million.

Julie Vallese, director of public affairs at CPSC says the agency will not be able to do some of the things Congress wants until lawmakers vote to boost the agency's budget. "This is not an appropriations bill," she points out. "The bill is a great thing and it's going to give the agency more tools, but we won't have some of those tools in effect until at least late 2009."

The toy industry supports this legislation which should restore consumer confidence and help boost sales.

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Toy safety now a top priority
The new law virtually eliminates lead from all toys and children’s products. The lead allowed in paint will drop to minute levels. Items made from significant amounts of lead, such as children’s jewelry, will now be banned. In 2006, a child who swallowed a heart-shaped charm died from acute lead poisoning. The ridiculous legal loophole that allowed children’s jewelry to be made from lead will be closed.

Congress also banned a group of toxic chemicals called phthalates from toys and children’s products. These chemicals soften plastic used to make some pacifiers, teethers, and baby bottles.

Phthalates are in a class of chemicals called endocrine disruptors. Industry argues there is no proof the low levels of phthalates found in children’s products are harmful. Environmental scientists disagree.

“They can interfere with normal growth and development and cause problems in reproduction and fertility for adults,” says Bill Walker, vice president of the Environmental Working Group.

Many phthalate-free products are already on the market. Wal-Mart and Toys R Us have decided not to sell children’s products that contain these chemicals.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission Improvement Act takes the toy industry’s voluntary safety standards and makes them mandatory. It also requires children’s products (including toys) to be safety tested by an independent laboratory before they can be sold.

The government can’t possibly do all this testing, so independent labs and some toy company labs will conduct the testing. But the CPSC will oversee the process and can pull a lab’s accreditation if the rules are not followed.

“Toy companies will have to prove to the CPSC that the lab is not influenced by the parent company,” explains Jean Halloran of Consumers Union. “They must show that it’s a separate entity that can render an independent judgment.”

Getting the word out
It can take months, sometimes years, for a manufacturer to recall a dangerous product. While CPSC investigates, consumers are kept in the dark about any reports of injuries or deaths related to that product. The new law changes that. CPSC will no longer keep this information secret.

The commission will create a public database where anyone – doctors, lawyers, parents – can report product safety hazards and anyone can search this information and get details about specific makes and models.  This is a huge change that will empower consumers to learn about potential hazards and should result in fewer injuries and deaths.

The bottom line
It’s going to take a while for all the new rules to become effective. In some cases, it will be a few years. Even then, it will still be a buyer beware marketplace. When it comes to safety, we must always be on guard.

Remember: The new law will not affect the toys you find on the shelf this holiday shopping season. Most of them have already been manufactured. Parents still need to check for potential hazards, such as small parts that could choke a child or small magnets that can come off and be swallowed.

My two cents
Consumer safety in this country is moving forward, for the first time in a long time. The CPSC will soon have the tools and the legislative muscle it needs to be the watchdog it was always supposed to be. Rather than simply respond to injuries and deaths, the commission will be able to prevent them.

Thank you Congress – job well done! And thanks to all the consumer groups who lobbied for so many years to make this happen.

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