Leaders of the agency responsible for protecting consumers from faulty products pleaded Wednesday with Congress to increase their budget and authority in the wake of huge recalls related to lead contamination.The testimony from Consumer Product Safety Commission officials came as El Segundo, Calif.-based Mattel Inc., producer of 1.5 million of the 13.2 million toys recalled in the past month, revealed that its tests found that lead levels in paint in recalled toys were as high as 110,000 parts per million, or nearly 200 times higher than the accepted safety ceiling of 600 parts per million.“We are all to blame” for a system that allowed children to be exposed to lead-tainted toys, CPSC Commissioner Thomas H. Moore said in the first of two days of hearings before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee. That includes, he said, “those who stood by and quietly acquiesced while the commission was being reduced to a weakened regulator.”Moore thanked lawmakers for rejecting a Bush administration budget proposal that would have required cutting full-time staff by 19 people, and urged Congress to pass legislation to give the agency better tools to protect consumers from product safety hazards.“Our small agency has been ignored by the Congress and the public for way too long,” said the CPSC’s acting chairman, Nancy A. Nord.
The agency was founded in 1973 with a staff of about 800. It currently employs about half that number, and Moore said it has about 15 people, out of a total field investigative staff of fewer than 90, to visit ports of entry to inspect the more than 15,000 product types under its jurisdiction.
The commission banned lead paint on toys and children’s furniture in 1978, but is not authorized under law to regulate lead in a product unless it may cause “substantial personal injury.” When ingested by children, lead can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems.
Nord noted that the recalls, mainly of toys manufactured in China, have had the intended purpose of goading the entire toy industry into changing practices to prevent such violations in the future. It has also inspired the introduction of several bills to increase the authority and budget of the CPSC and better monitor imports from China.
“We must start with the CPSC,” said Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., chairman of the subcommittee overseeing consumer protection. “Is the commission capable of preventing these products from entering state commerce?”
Nord and Moore also pointed to an agreement reached with the agency’s Chinese counterpart last week under which China will immediately implement a plan to eliminate the use of lead paint on Chinese manufactured toys exported to the United States.
Mattel Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Robert A. Eckert, in prepared testimony, stressed the safety of the 800 million products the toy maker and its vendors manufacture every year. He also acknowledged that the company’s investigation revealed “that a few vendors, either deliberately or out of carelessness, circumvented our long-established safety standards and procedures.”
“These recent lead recalls have been a personal disappointment to me” and those working at Mattel, he said. “Those events have also called on us to act, and we have.”
But several members of the panel complained that Mattel blocked committee staff members from visiting its plants in China and talking to the Hong Kong executives who oversee those plants. “That’s a poor kind of cooperation to be afforded this committee and it will hardly be helpful in our relationship with the company,” said committee Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich.
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