Senate Confronts Product Safety

March 7, 2008

A bill to crack down on dangerous consumer products was approved by the U.S. Senate Thursday after a year of recalls of millions of lead-tainted toys and other hazardous products, many made in China.

The bill would beef up the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), virtually ban lead content in toys and mandate independent testing of children’s products.

In last-minute additions to the bill, it would also impose a ban on chemicals known as phthalates in children’s products and regulate the sale of second-hand baby cribs.

Product safety grabbed Congress’ attention last year amid scores of recalls by Mattel Inc, RC2 Corp and other toy companies due to excessive lead content.

In the uproar that ensued, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a few other lawmakers called for the ouster of CPSC Acting Chairman Nancy Nord. But she has remained in office.

The House overwhelmingly passed a similar bill in December. The Senate’s version is tougher. A compromise between the two will have to be worked out.

The White House has expressed some specific concerns with the Senate bill, but has not threatened to veto it.

“Now this bill has to go to conference and the hard work starts,” said Sen. Mark Pryor, the Arkansas Democrat who steered the bill to passage in the Senate.

The Senate voted 79-13 to approve the bill in a rare show of bipartisan cooperation. It would boost the CPSC’s budget, staff, enforcement clout and its presence at U.S. ports.

The bill would also create a publicly available database on mishaps related to consumer products; allow state attorneys general to play a limited role in CPSC rule enforcement; and provide protections to whistleblowers inside corporations.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called the legislation “a strong statement that the (Bush) administration’s lax regulation standards on children’s safety are unacceptable.”

The CPSC was set up in the 1970s to regulate hazards in about 15,000 different consumer products.

The Senate bill also included an amendment co-authored by Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat running for his party’s presidential nomination against Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Obama’s amendment would require the CPSC to develop standardized recall notices to give parents more information about dangerous products, as well as refunds and replacements.

“Millions of lead-tainted toys were recalled last year, and it’s clear we must do more to ensure that Americans have comprehensive details about the products that are recalled,” Obama said in a statement.

Gerald Storch, chief executive of Toys R Us, praised the Senate passage of the bill and said, “We now look forward to the negotiations between the House and Senate, and we hope for rapid resolution of open issues and other details, so the end result is legislation that benefits everyone involved. (Reporting by Kevin Drawbaugh; Editing by Tim Dobbyn, Gary Hill)

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