Let's zoom up to 40,000 feet and look down on the CPSIA mess. If Martians were watching this affair unfold before their uncomprehending eyes, what would they think?
In 2007/8, a large number of toy recalls and jewelry recalls dominated the newspaper headlines. A closer examination of these recalls shows that they were largely restricted to lead-in-paint and lead-in-jewelry, but few people bothered with the details - hysteria was a lot easier. Sold on a rationale that it is "impossible" to know if something's safe without testing it, Congress wrote up legislation to require prophylactic testing of all children's products, a mind-boggling array of products ranging from pens to t-shirts to science kits to ATVs to shoes.
Being entirely unable to anticipate any problems with this brilliant construct, Congress was shocked to find that the CPSC couldn't implement these requirements without crushing small businesses (among others). A finger-pointing contest broke out, where Congress insisted that the CPSC had the power to implement the new law with "common sense" (read, make up law to make the whiners go away) and the CPSC pushed back that it lacked regulatory flexibility under the CPSIA and legally was forbidden to assess risk. Standoff!
Of late, a weary and perhaps more sensitive CPSC is now taking a more conciliatory stance, expressing an interest, in the words of Ms. Tenenbaum, "to get it right". Aside from soliciting feedback from stakeholders, the agency is clearly trying to draft rules permitting small companies to reduce their compliance costs. The net effect: testing is ebbing away. Now with component testing, it is possible for companies to get out of testing altogether for many of their products. Other rules, like flexible rules on rules on sampling and testing frequency, among other rules being crafted, are further reducing the testing burden. [I strongly support this movement by the CPSC, let there be no doubt.]
But I am confused now. Rachel Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America famously taught us that "Businesses’ assertion that they’re having to test products they know are safe is absurd. You only know if a product is safe if it’s been tested." [Emphasis added.] Yet the CPSC seems to be pulling away from Ms. Weintraub and her wisdom on testing. Is testing critical or not? Is safety achievable in other ways (perhaps various elements in combination)? If testing isn't so essential after all, what's really going on here?
I have a theory to share on this question: The recent movement by the CPSC on testing is tacit acknowledgement of our argument that there is more to safety administration than testing. Furthermore, the ebbing of testing requirements is a further acknowledgement that we are not facing a massive public health crisis in children's products - and never were. Yes, that means poison zippers, brass bushings, ATVs, pens and bikes really is a joke, as you thought. So why the big fuss, why isn't everyone linking arms and singing Kumbaya, if there is acceptance that a lesser standard will be sufficient to ensure safety?
It's simple - the issues go beyond this law, and that's why the Dems in Congress will budge. In fact, we are pawns in a bigger game, namely the battle to establish the precautionary principle in the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). This is Mr. Waxman's dream legislation, his effort to rein in the chemical industry. The folks behind the TSCA reform legislation are deeply suspicious of chemicals in our lives and want to regulate them on a precautionary basis, not entirely unlike the way we approve drugs. It's the "fear of everything" all over again but BIGGER.
How does this tie back to the CPSIA? We are the test case, kids. The CPSIA was the first skirmish in the TSCA war. The two substances regulated on a precautionary basis under the CPSIA, lead and phthalates, either make or break the case on TSCA. If the Dems give in to our demands and acknowledge that their precautionary scheme didn't work, that it ate up the regulatory agency (now nicknamed the Children's Product Safety Commission), then how can they win approval of TSCA?
This is why the Dems are so resistant to rational change of this ridiculous law. This is why they won't listen to reason or consider facts. The facts are contrary to their larger goals, so they need to ignore them or deny them. In this context, it is better to send us down the river than deal with our issues. Although their tough testing scheme is being unraveled, they won't admit that it means that the crisis never was; without a crisis to fix, the entire logic of the CPSIA and their precautionary trial balloon fizzles. The Dems must insist that the crisis is still severe and that there is only one solution, the precautionary principle. Otherwise, they don't get TSCA.
[Side note: There was a "telltale" in the Waxman amendment to the CPSIA last week on TSCA. A big issue in TSCA reform legislation is the possible use of "junk science" to justify removing valuable chemicals from use in our country. With all the self-appointed consumer representatives clamoring for a chemical-free world, there is good reason to fear manipulative use of science under TSCA to disrupt the chemical industry. It's no different than the misuse of lead toxicity and antimony health effects by consumer groups to attack toys and other children's products under the CPSIA. Some people have been insisting on a "peer-review" standard for these scientific challenges to chemical use - which Mr. Waxman fear may hobble his precautionary principle law. This term is used in Section 101 (b) in the CPSIA to make it more difficult to get exemptions - but was stripped out of the law in Mr. Waxman's unilateral amendment. See my first blogpost on his amendment. His "generous act" in removing this ridiculous stumbling block wasn't a signal of increasing sympathy with our problems. No, in fact, it was simply aimed at resolving one of his problems with TSCA.]
I have no easy answers for how this ends. If you feel your anger welling up, you're not alone. Actually, I think the regulators are sick of it, too. The CPSIA has truly consumed the CPSC and made the daily affairs of that agency some kind of purgatory for the staff there. I can't imagine it's much fun being a Commissioner either. Frankly, the biggest shame of all is that by Congress (the Dems, really) insisting on an unworkable scheme for reasons unrelated to children's product safety, the agency has been rendered ineffective, bureaucratic and stuck in gridlock. The CPSC's essential role has been mooted. That's bad for everybody - in a perfect world, the agency is free to do its job and look for real safety problems to solve. Instead, it has to spend its time figuring out whether water slides are primarily intended for children and the like. What a tragic waste.
In the wake of last week's demise of the Waxman amendment and the extension of the lead content Stay, we must retain our focus and continue to push hard for a change in the law. The facts are piling up and the excuses for inaction are fading. It's time for action - for the good of consumers, for the good of industry and for the good of the CPSC.