Published On: Thu, Feb 3rd, 2022

People mistakenly assume consumer products are safe, top regulator says

Just because a product is for sale doesn’t mean it’s safe, says the man leading the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency charged with protecting the public against unreasonably dangerous or deadly products. 

“I do know in talking to people, they often think because it’s on the shelves, it’s been pre-approved by the government, which is not the case,” CPSC Chair Alexander Hoehn-Saric told CBS MoneyWatch.

The agency’s task is a monumental one — and literally a matter of life and death. The CPSC is charged with protecting the public from injury and death, along with property damage, linked with thousands of different products. Such incidents cost the U.S. more than $1 trillion per year, according to the agency. 

Compounding the challenge is the CPSC’s limited authority. Although there are regulations and safety standards in place, many are voluntary, leaving it up to manufacturers whether to adhere to recommendations on an array of products, from bedrails to amusement park rides.  

Alexander Hoehn-Saric was confirmed as chair of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission on October 7, 2021.

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

Indeed, from children’s toys to portable gas generators and toasters, unsafe products lead to hundreds of thousands of injuries and deaths in the U.S. every year. Toys alone send tens of thousands of children to hospital emergency rooms, according to the CPSC. It estimates 198,000 toy-related injuries were treated in the U.S. in 2020, with nine fatalities involving kids 12 and younger, mostly from choking on small parts.

Products as random as turkey fryers are a particular risk during the holidays, with the agency in November citing the bird cookers as related to more than 200 incidents of scalding or burning since 1998, leaving 83 injured and causing $9.7 million in property damage. In addition to its periodic warnings, the CPSC has recalled an array of turkey and deep fryers over the years. 

Turkey fryer recalled by Academy Sports + Outdoors in 2019 because the spout might leak oil, posing a fire hazard.

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

Confirmed as CPSC chair by the Senate in October, Hoehn-Saric and his staff of 540 oversee thousands of types of consumer products used in homes, schools and recreational areas. His goals include raising the agency’s profile to better protect and inform the public. 

“It’s important that when consumers have questions or problems, they know who we are and can come to us,” he said. 

Hoehn-Saric urged consumers to do their homework before making purchases. “It’s easy and fast to check for recalls” and obtain product safety information, he said, pointing to government websites and as reliable sources. 

About a quarter of the CPSC’s staff work in the field, inspecting imported shipments and stores to ID harmful products. Another 100 test and evaluate products, and more than 30 members represent the agency in negotiating standards involving dozens of products and categories. 

The CPSC relies on reports from consumers, companies and hospitals in investigating products. When potential hazards are identified, the agency typically works with companies on a voluntary recall, which Hoehn-Saric said is the best way to “quickly get the dangerous product out of the hands of consumers.” 

Risky bed rails still on the market


By contrast, legally requiring companies to conduct a recall takes years of litigation, during which the dicey product remains on the market, he noted.

And when companies don’t play ball?

When a company resists a recall, the CPSC may opt to warn consumers anyway. One high-profile example had the agency in April warning people with kids and small pets to stop using Peloton Interactive’s Tread+ treadmills after one child’s death and dozens of injuries. The company agreed to a recall a month later. 

More recently, the CPSC last month cautioned against using Podster infant loungers made by Leachco. 

“We’ve been talking to Leachco and identified this as a dangerous product due to the risk of suffocation following the deaths of two infants,” said Hoehn-Saric of fatalities that occurred in 2015 and 2018. 

CPSC Warning: Stop using Leachco Podster infant loungers; suffocation hazard; 2 infant deaths investigated –

Posted by U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission on Thursday, January 20, 2022

Unlike Peloton, the Ada, Oklahoma-based company was not swayed. Leachco, which has sold nearly 180,000 of the baby loungers since 2009, in January called the loss of an infant “truly tragic” but defended its product as not intended for “unsupervised sleep.”

The company drew fire from consumer advocates as well as words of support from an industry trade group.

 The Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association said the CPSC was engaging in “regulatory overreach,” with the trade group arguing the agency should instead be educating parents on “only using baby products as intended.”

Conversely, the advocacy group Kids in Danger called on Leachco to change its stance: “Currently, too many products make their way onto the market that can appear to be for sleep, but do not provide a safe sleep environment,” it said in a statement. “We urge Leachco to agree to recall these potentially hazardous products and work aggressively to reach all users.”

The CPSC has long advised parents that the safest place for a baby to sleep is in a flat, bare crib, but getting the message out is a challenge for an agency that often flies under the public’s radar. 

“We’re talking about the most vulnerable — babies and infants — they can’t protect themselves, so it’s up to all of us to look out for them by making sure products are safe. And at another level, getting the information out,” Hoehn-Saric told CBS MoneyWatch.

CPSC votes to regulate infant sleep products


The CPSC last week approved a federal safety standard for crib mattresses, related to 139 fatalities between January 2010 and April 2021. The new rule, which takes effect in the fall of 2022, includes a requirement that mattresses be tested for firmness to reduce the risk of suffocation. 

The CPSC has the ability to seek penalties from companies that violate its rules, but the fines are capped at $16 million, “which honestly is not very high when you are talking about some of the large corporations out there,” he said. 

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