Sunday, November 29, 2009

CPSIA - Consumer Groups are Grasping at Straws

Last week, in their usual pre-Xmas slanderfest, the full range of consumer groups unleashed their annual list of bad and dangerous toy lists on a pandering media. The pickin's were slim this year, but that didn't stop them.

I have heard from friends outside the toy industry who expressed horror and disbelief at these widely-publicized attacks. Toy industry insiders are used to it, frankly. Actually, speaking candidly, some of these annual efforts are useful and appreciated. I think that bad products (generally reflecting poor judgment, nothing more venal than that) have been usefully exposed by these groups in the past. However, of late the consumer groups have been obsessed by "toxics" - pushing the notion that toys are poisonous, rather than simply irresponsibly-designed. I think the reason is simple - the media and reactive politicians respond to this accusation, so why give up a "good thing"? You have to wonder if their goal is to simply make toys safer. Their attacks are remain more vicious than in the past and much more pointed.

The consumer group continue to package the idea that consumers do not realize that "no government agency tests toys before they are put on the shelves." This self-declared "fact" is an essential justification of their "precautionary principle" - that is, we need an activist government approving everything before you get your hands on it. President Obama's assertion on Late Night with David Letterman that we need a lot more government these days is right in line with the precautionary principle. Others call this movement the Nanny State.

The precautionary principle holds that no risk is too small to address - in advance. Thus, the neurosis underlying the assertion that Americans think the government must be "testing" toys before they are sold is the same as Consumer Union's David Pittle's admission in the TSCP hearing (beginning at about 90 minutes in the video) that he is "nervous" when he buys a toy (not sure what or whom to trust), and ergo, his rules for how manufacturers run their businesses must be imposed. Mr. Pittle's demands seem designed to relieve his anxieties, rather than improve safety. [He might contend that it is one and the same but I disagree.] Inciting terror through various means, the consumer groups place a real emphasis on how consumers FEEL and whether products and their manufacturers have earned consumer confidence (an emotional standard), not whether (objectively or actually), the products are actually safe.

Perhaps your mother told you once that it is hard to control how others feel - you can only control what you do and how you do it. Maybe she should be running Congress . . . .

In any event, the number of offending children's products uncovered this year by the consumer groups is rather meagre. As previously noted, Center for Environmental Health (CEH) drummed up seven items after six weeks of testing on 250 items. The CEH rogue's gallery featured NO soluble lead in toys, but did feature one pair of shoes with lead in the soles . . . a pair of sandals with lead in the insole . . . a trinket with a bad connector link . . . a poncho with lead in the vinyl material, etc. And now the PIRGs have joined in the fun. The annual Trouble in Toyland report was issued this week by national PIRG and the equally hyperbolic Illinois PIRG issued its own "Chemical Compliance: Testing for Toxics in Children’s Products" report. [I am only focusing on lead and phthalates in these reports.] The PIRG "bounty": a zipper "pull" and a yellow cow with lead-in-paint, one piece of lead jewelry, and two toys with phthalates (one an "unidentified" phthalate that might not be illegal, and the other just slightly over the limit). Illinois PIRG found only a small handful of violative products: only six of 87 products tested positive for violative lead levels using XRF guns, winnowing down to three items when tested by an independent lab.

Illinois PIRG failed to find lead or phthalates in the items featured in this TV segment. Unfortunately, that makes bad TV, so the head of Illinois PIRG lowered the standard to create something new to worry about (watch from 1:00 for 30 seconds in the video): "Most of the toys PIRG bought at target came up clean. But three of the toys had small amounts of lead -- MUCH LESS THAN the current safety standard but enough for the gun to detect. 'Really, children shouldn't be exposed to lead at all,' said [Brian] Imus." [Emphasis added]

An implication of the 2009 reports is that the onerous new CPSIA lead standards are simply not tough enough. For instance, PIRG says "Regulations should simply ban lead except at trace amounts (90-100 ppm), whether in paint, coatings or any toys, jewelry or other products for use by children under 12 years old." Where did this come from? Some ideas:
  • They are laying the groundwork for the August 2011 determination by the CPSC about implementing a 100 ppm lead limit. To do so, the agency must conclude that it is "technologically feasible" as defined in the CPSIA.
  • The groups are desperate to make their work seem relevant and constructive.
  • They are confused or want to confuse consumers about HOW lead harms children, ignoring, covering up or blurring important distinctions between bio-available lead and inaccessible lead.

The latter point is so critical to understand. Lead can only harm a child if it gets into the bloodstream. Notably, lead is present throughout the environment (lead is found in at least 40 ppm concentrations in dirt, unless you are referring to the Obama's vegetable garden which has lead in concentrations of 93 ppm). Lead is in our food, drink and air, so kids consume it all the time. Apparently, lead in certain amounts must not be a problem, or else we would all have suffered reduced IQs (no comment in my case). The lead that should concern us is soluble lead, as in lead-in-paint and in jewelry, because it can easily get into the bloodstream. In any event, PIRG knows that toys and children's products aren't the problem. In their report, they cite a 2005 article (“Lead Exposure in Children: Prevention, Detection and Management,” Pediatrics, 1036-1048 (October 2005)) which makes clear that the problem with childhood blood lead levels is in lead-in-paint used in housing. There is NO mention anywhere that I can find where academic studies blame national blood lead levels on toys, etc., and likewise, I find all credit for lowering blood lead levels is given to efforts to rid the world of lead-in-paint in housing. Period.

So why does PIRG and its brethren continue to flog the notion that lead in all manifestations is dangerous? And why are they now saying that ANY lead, even below the draconian levels in the current law, is dangerous to children's health?

Questions worth pondering.

Finally, not content to blur the lines on lead, PIRG also recommends that the phthalates ban be extended: "CPSC should ban phthalates in toys and other products intended for children under five and work with the Federal Trade Commission to ensure that toys labeled 'phthalate-free' do not contain phthalates." So apparently PIRG wants ALL phthalates eliminated from toys, no matter the absence of science behind their new manic fear. Even more importantly, they apparently concede that the blanket ban on six phthalates for toys intended for children 6-12 is excessive and damaging. At least that's a positive contribution!

So another Xmas toy bashing seems to be behind us. The pseudo-science underlying the consumer groups' attacks on children's products was again exposed, as was the basic integrity and safety of the marketplace. Does that do us any good? That remains to be seen. Perhaps the leadership at the CPSC will tire of this relentless war (which is eroding their professional reputations) and do something to get Congress to fix a truly defective and damaging law. Let's hope so.


Eric H said...

I don't think that - what should we call them? Big Safety? No, for reasons to follow. Big Law? Perhaps. Big Demagoguery? Too long. Big Fright? Big Sanctimony? - these people have any understanding of the topics they cover. You never see any analysis from them that indicates that they are even aware of absolute or relative comparisons or why they might be important. The very idea that a product is either "safe" or "unsafe", with no gradations between, is laughable. Besides the lip service they occasionally pay in their press releases (which a curiously uncurious press dutifully serves up without comment), they don't seem to be aware that the world is generally a safer place to be a child than it was a generation ago, and that this trend has been going on for some time. But nevermind, let's not let facts get in the way of their All Rhetoric, All the Time message.

bchiasson said...

Speaking of wasting Federal resources on witch-hunts, think of the tax-payer, corporate, and small-business money wasted on a so-called threat where toys do not register on any scientific or governmental study. Case-in-point: according to the CDC National Center for Health Statistics, the top six causes of deaths between the ages of 1 to 14 are as follows:

1. Motor Vehicle Accidents
2. Drowning
3. Fire Burns
4. Suffocation
5. Pedestrian
6. Falls

If PIRG and Congress want to truly protect the youth of America, how about spending the money wasted on the CPSIA on educating America's parents and children on safety precautions on the above top six?