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The mission of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is a noble one: “to protect the public from unreasonable risks of serious injury or death from more than 15,000 types of consumer products” — but recent cases of injuries, and even deaths, caused by faulty products have revealed a broken system that has left consumers outraged, wary, and scared. Perhaps most famously, the massive toy recalls over the past two years, including popular products like Barbie dolls and Polly Pockets, put millions of children at risk and prompted serious questions about the agency’s oversight. The CPSC is limited in its ability to disclose safety hazards to the public and will usually issue a recall of a product after the manufacturer has agreed to it, to avoid being sued. Also, the agency must rely on the manufacturer to adhere to safety standards.

When it comes to enforcement, the CPSC can fine violators, but the amount of civil penalty is capped at $8,000 for each violation. These restrictions ultimately slow down the recall process and weaken its effectiveness. In 46 cases since 2002, it took the CPSC an average of at least 209 days to relay information to the public. Polaris Industries reported that its all-terrain vehicles had faulty oil lines, which caused 42 fires and injured 18 people, but the CPSC did not notify the public of these problems for more than two years. ATVs continued to be a serious problem and related injuries have risen 24 percent since 2001, but the CPSC has said it doesn’t have the resources to investigate. Critics believe this lack of enforcement had a major impact on children’s safety. The CPSC received 409 reports of injuries from Yo Yo Waterballs, a toy banned in several countries and the state of Illinois. The agency only issued one warning to parents and never recalled the product.

In September 2007, the CPSC issued a major recall of one million cribs, but this came two and a half years after a nine-month-old child was killed when he got stuck in a defective drop rail and died from asphyxiation. The CPSC was notified of the incident during the police investigation immediately following the infant’s death, but the CPSC investigator failed to track down the manufacturer and took no further steps. After the child’s death, the CPSC received a number of complaints from concerned parents, including reports of the deaths of two more children, before issuing its recall.

A CPSC spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment, but in a 2007 congressional hearing, acting chairman Nancy Nord noted the agency’s inability to “fully investigate every one of the hundreds of thousands of annual product incidents of which we become aware.” However, she said she remained “extremely proud of the CPSC, its dedicated professionals, and the work we do. And, in the final analysis, I believe we carry out our mission of consumer protection and education extremely well.”

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA) allows the CPSC to adopt mandatory safety standards for ATVs, impose higher civil penalties on violators of up to $15 million, and create a searchable database available to the public that lists reports of hazards. CPSIA also bans the sale of toys containing certain chemicals effective February 10, 2009, but places no such restrictions on products manufactured before that date. On December 4, two nonprofit groups filed a lawsuit against the CPSC over the loophole, which the suit claims will allow potentially dangerous products to remain on store shelves long after the ban goes into effect. But the administration is seeking to protect corporations from lawsuits by rewriting federal rules to say that the CPSC, along with other federal agencies, can “preempt,” or override, citizens’ right to file suit over dangerous products. Nord, acting chairman of the CPSC and a Bush-appointed commissioner, is expected to step down once President-Elect Obama takes office.

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