Wednesday, November 18, 2009

CPSIA - Let's Count the Reasons to be Outraged by CEH

Perhaps like me, you felt a surge of fear and loathing today over the Center for Environmental Health's effort hand-in-hand with CA Attorney General Jerry Brown to find products with "high levels of lead". CEH announced to great fanfare that it had found seven items that violated the law, and Jerry Brown plowed right in behind with a cease and desist order, demanding that these items be removed from shelves immediately. Several of the affected companies denied categorically that there were violations of law. I assume that Proposition 65 lawsuits are being prepared, and suitable penalties will rain down from the heavens in due course (you know, in three years) to properly punish the "scofflaws". Nice work, CEH.

CEH justifies its actions to destroy the children's product industry with misleading facts about lead. Here's how they describe the dreaded danger they are "protecting us" against:

"Lead is a stunningly toxic metal. A long list of problems has been linked to lead exposure: lowered intelligence, behavior problems, cancer, strokes, high blood pressure, kidney problems, anemia, cavities, and delayed puberty. While exposure to lead paint in old houses remains the most significant source of children’s lead exposure, about 30 percent of children with high blood lead levels are exposed to other sources of lead, including toys and other children’s products."

They go on to list a parade of horribles, such as "University of Cincinnati researchers found that arrest rates of young adults (both for violent crimes and all arrests) were linked to the blood lead levels of these adults when they were children. Higher childhood lead exposure was associated with higher arrest rates."

The interesting thing about these assertions about lead is that they are TRUE . . . and they are also IRRELEVANT in this case. There is absolutely no way to prove or even assert in any reasonable fashion that the products cited here could EVER poison children in this way or are responsible for ANY of the cited lead horrors. The CEH is just using plain vanilla scare tactics - did it work on you? Unfortunately, some newspapers bought it, hook line and sinker.

I hardly know where to start. Here are a few reasons to be flippin' mad about this stunt:

I. The Seven Items Present Little or No Risk. Consider this list of "frightening" product defects:

a. Disney Tinkerbell Water Lily necklace - Connector on pixie dust charm contains 22,000 parts per million lead. [I believe this connector is perhaps 3 mm in diameter.]

b. Barbie Bike Flair Accessory Kit - Pink star fabric contains 6196 parts per million lead. [This is an item used on a bicycle.]

c. Dora the Explorer Activity Tote - Orange fabric on back of tote contains 2348 parts per million lead. [I believe his fabric is not detachable and cannot be chewed.]

d. [This one's my favorite] TKS girl’s sandals - Orange insole contains 3957 parts per million lead. [To access this lead, you must lick or chew on the INSOLE of a pair of sandals. Yum!]

e. Kids poncho - Yellow fabric contains 677 parts per million lead. [Gotta chew on your poncho.]

f. [This is a close second] Faded Glory girl’s shoes - Sole contains 1331 parts per million lead. [It's like my old joke about licking the soles of your shoes after walking to school. Happens all the time . . . .]

g. Cherokee boys belt - Surface of belt contains 4270 parts per million lead. [I have no idea what the problem is here. Still, belt chewing is exceptionally rare and not foreseeable in my opinion.]

I hope you haven't begun rioting in the streets over these tragic "violations of law". Let's recap - this rogue's gallery includes a CONNECTOR, the fabric of a decorative star on a bike accessory, backing on a tote, the INSOLE OF A SHOE, the SOLE OF A SHOE, a poncho and a belt.

Let me be blunt - how brain-damaged must someone be to actually believe these things are dangerous?

II. Cassandra Here, Have I Mentioned My Concern about State AGs? Ahem, I believe I have noted my strong concerns about State AG enforcement of the CPSIA in the past (note, especially my April 4 post about Mr. Brown). In fact, I made a big point of this issue in my unread letters sent to the Congressional conferees in July 2008 . . . to no avail. Obviously, I was way off in my thinking. Worrywart . . . .

How outrageous is Mr. Brown's enforcement action? Well, he worked in concert with CEH apparently without talking to the CPSC. CEH practically brags about this ("In collaboration with the California Attorney General the Center for Environmental Health has spent the last six weeks monitoring compliance with the new law. . . . In October and November 2009 we purchased about 250 children’s products from major retailers in the Bay Area and San Diego. . . . We provided information about all of the violations to the California attorney general for enforcement action."). The CPSC seems to be irrelevant to CEH and Mr. Brown.

Ahem, CPSC - what do you think about being rendered irrelevant by a grandstanding State AG and an even more disruptive consumer group? Welcome to my world. Ms. Tenenbaum, in your continuing efforts to cultivate a positive relationship with the State AGs, you may wish to reflect on the behavior of Mr. Brown and his apparent commitment to you and your efforts to calm the markets and implement the new law. Yes, commitment, that's a nice word for it, don't you think?

Here's a word to ponder: "preemption".

III. Publicity-Hungry Consumer Groups Have Proven Their Own Corruption. Stirring up this kind of public shame and panic may be good for raising contributions to CEH, but it is nothing more than a shameful demonstration of anti-social behavior. REAL JOBS and REAL LIVELIHOODS are impacted by CEH grandstanding and NO possible public good was accomplished by the latest losses inflicted by the new toy safety laws. Even CEH concedes things are much better these days (on CBS News, Executive Director Michael Green noted "It is definitely a safer Christmas than it was two years ago."). Thanks, Mike, you have really reassured the American consumer!

CEH's grandstanding over ridiculous assertions of danger is irresponsible and in light of Green's concession of the safety of the marketplace, morally corrupt. Consider that in a six-week effort to find something "bad", the CEH schemers examined 250 products, and all they could find is a connector to a charm, the sole of a shoe and the INSOLE of a shoe. Wow, what a smoking gun! However, with a hepped-up State AG perhaps preparing a gubernatorial bid, even these pathetic findings are the perfect makings for a publicity event.

As if these acts of desperation, self-interest or moral degradation were not enough, both CEH and State AG Brown then attempt to convince the public that these products actually constitute a danger. "'Private testing uncovered a number of products designed for children that contain dangerous and illegal levels of lead,' Brown said in a prepared statement. 'These products must be removed from store shelves at once to protect our kids from toxic lead exposure.'" In the quote above, CEH contends that the presence of lead in products like this can be connected to "lowered intelligence, behavior problems, cancer, strokes, high blood pressure, kidney problems, anemia, cavities, and delayed puberty". Oooh, sounds AWFUL - now prove it! CEH and their merry band of anti-commerce loonies can only assert these harms - NO data exists that can link lead in these manifestations to ANY physical harm. But what's a good consumer group publicity event without unaccountable fear mongering?

Any sane adult or experienced parent knows that all this is baloney. This sad state of affairs confirms that the consumer groups do NOT deserve a leading role in setting the rules of the road in safety. They gave up the moral high ground when they decided to sell fear rather than advocate for safety.

Final Words: I was recently sent a blogpost link written by a consumer group about my testimony at the CPSC on November 10 about the CPSIA public database. Of course, since I am apparently a force from the Heart of Darkness (as you know), the consumer group blogpost scorned my testimony and painted the usual conspiracy theories that the wingnuts tend to favor. What was particularly notable about this post was the following note at the bottom of the page: "Comments are closed."

Get it? The consumer groups like having the last word. They like spreading the news that best suits their interests but don't want to answer to anyone else. [We have seen this before.] The consumer groups depend on the kindness of strangers - they need your contributions to pay their salaries. What better way to do this than sell their souls for some headlines? If you are the ones paying into their coffers with the thinking that they are looking out for you, I think you should carefully ponder the "good work" of Mike Green and his gang this week. Is this good for America? Is anyone safer now or better off? Or . . . are CEH and the other aligned consumer groups a bigger part of the problem than previously recognized?

After this stunt, I certainly hope no one will stick a microphone in Mike Green's face again.

8 comments:

Eric H said...

Rick,

The comment above is clearly spam.

Also, even as I agree that these pose a vanishingly small risk, how stupid can these manufacturers be? The Dora license must belong to some huge outfit (Disney?) which probably retains a legal staff to prosecute license violations and IP infringement. It's therefore hard to have much sympathy for their failure to realize their own legal obligations. Can they not find lead-free cloth?! By switching to lead-free cloth, no net jobs are lost.

Seriously, it had to have been harder to find cloth with lead in it than to find lead-free orange cloth.

Wacky Hermit said...

I was wondering about the lead content in the cloth too. After all, CPSC tautologically assured us that all fabric is inherently lead-free unless it's not.

I hope that instead of rolling over and shelling out the bucks so these scam artists can go away, the companies publicize their own (probably extensive) test results on this fabric and these materials, and also publicly attempt (and hopefully fail) to duplicate CEH's test results with new random samples. Until companies start doing this, these people will keep on pulling this same scam.

Lori W. said...

Eric: I think the CEH is using the term "fabric" loosely. Those images look like the "fabric" is more likely some kind of non-woven pressed PVC. It's not likely to be made of cloth. But your question about why the manufacturers would use non-compliant materials is more interesting. The answer is probably that they specified compliant materials, they insisted on compliant materials, they put huge fines and penalties into their contract for the submanufacturer for any testing failures - then the factory in China got a good deal on some cheaper PVC and decided to swap it out without telling the licensee, figuring that it wouldn't get caught. (I'm quite willing to bet that this wasn't a case of the licensee not "realiz[ing] their own legal obligation". Mattel certainly understood its legal obligation not to use lead paint.) If Wal-mart and Disney can't control their manufacturers in China, how does anyone smaller have a prayer?

But this all ignores Rick's original point, which is - why is anyone getting worked up over these levels in these products in the first place, when there just is no foreseeable harm!

Lori W. said...

Um... Hermit, are you saying that these companies should have all tested each of these materials for lead content and should have those test results on file to pull out whenever anyone asks?

That sounds remarkably like what the CPSC wants.

Or is it that you think the CEH's test results are bogus and they are framing these manufacturers?

Rick Woldenberg, Chairman - Learning Resources Inc. said...

I took down the comment from the escort service!

No one knows where the recalled items came from. It is quite possible they are old inventory. I also find that test results are not always right, even from approved labs. In any event, even if they are right, we cannot "convict" based on such limited information. Any thoughtful manufacturer would insist on looking at all the facts FIRST to identify the problem (if any). There are just too many possibilities to speculate.

What is certain, however, is that this event is pure nonsense and a publicity stunt performed at the expense of the affected retailers and the affected manufacturers. It is a telescoped legal process with few questions asked. The responsible regulator was cut out of the process, too. The California premise is guilty until proven innocent, and all the better if it enhances the public standing of aspiring politicians. For those of us who must work for a living making products and attempting to make kids' lives better, it is a low point. We suffer shame, risk and expense - and for what? Lead-free shoe soles?

Give me a break!

Mars Feeney said...

This was such an easy stunt to pull primarily because of the press's prime directive: "Repeat scary things people say. Never dig deeper as the truth is rarely as interesting as scary hype."

John said...

Did CEH immediately report the offending products to CPSC? If not, they should be outed for (in their view) allowing children in the rest of the country to be needlessly put at risk while everyone waited on their publicity stunt. Can't have it both ways, if the lead in fabric was really a danger, they had an obligation to act on it.

From a manufacturing point of view, this is impossible to control. Look at a typical set of doll clothes, you have maybe a half dozen different fabrics,just a square inch of each. Even if you mass produce 100,000 pcs, there is not enough of any one fabric to buy the fabric new from the mill - the supplier basically has to go to the local fabric market and buy what is there. But since he is not buying from the mill, how can he know that all the material came from the same production run or even the same factory? One bolt might test fine, another not. The message : re-engineer your product line to use fewer fabrics and components = boring or nonexistent products.

jennifer said...

i wish someone would do a story on the dangers of consumer groups. we used to "buy" consumer group scare tactics but now we look the other way. if they were trying to save the children they would be working on more important tasks like lead in paint in houses and pipes and how to raise money to fix things that are really a problem...but because that would be too difficult they are lerking around every corner to find their next paycheck and a pat on the back from Ms. Tenenbaum.