Video: Safety commission overhaul

updated 7/30/2008 8:06:34 PM ET 2008-07-31T00:06:34

Alarmed by a year of recalls targeting millions of tainted toys, the House voted overwhelming Wednesday to ban lead and other dangerous chemicals from items such as jewelry and rubber ducks that could end up in kids’ mouths.

The legislation also would toughen rules for testing children’s products and take steps to give more muscle to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which was criticized last year for its feeble handling of a flood of goods from China deemed hazardous to children.

“It should be a given that toys are not dangerous,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in welcoming legislation that was lauded by lawmakers and consumer groups as one of the most far-reaching product safety bills in decades.

With the bill, said Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, “our children’s toys will be tested in the laboratory before they are tested by our children on the living room floors of America.”

The bill, a product of House-Senate negotiations, would impose the toughest lead standards in the world, banning lead beyond minute levels in products for children 12 or younger.

It would also ban children’s products — either permanently or pending further study — containing six types of phthalates, which are chemicals that are found in plastics and suspected of posing health risks.

The 424-1 vote sends the measure to the Senate, which could approve it before Congress leaves for its August recess at the end of this week. The White House has voiced opposition to parts of the legislation but has not threatened a veto.

The bill would require third-party testing for many children’s products before they are marketed, a key change in monitoring practices following a year in which 45 million toys and children’s products — 30 million from China — were recalled.

Those included lead-contaminated children’s jewelry, “Spider-Man 3” flashing rings and Halloween pails.

“Third-party testing is a centerpiece of the new law” and a victory for consumers, said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director of U.S. PIRG, a grass-roots environmental organization.

The bill would double the budget of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, to $136 million by 2014, and give it new authority to monitor testing procedures and impose civil penalties on violators. The CPSC was founded in 1973 with a staff of about 800. It now employs about half that number, while imports have vastly increased.

It also would boost whistle-blower protections to encourage people to report hazards to the CPSC and would direct the agency to set up a database where consumers, government agencies, child care providers or doctors could report incidents of injury, illness, death or risk related to products.

One of the more controversial provisions is the ban on six types of phthalates, the chemicals used in a wide range of plastic products. They are used to make toys such as rubber ducks and bath books soft and flexible.

Tests on rats have found links to possible reproductive system problems for males and the onset of early puberty for females, and the European Union has banned the six.

The Breast Cancer Fund noted that when children put these toys in their mouths, phthalates can easily leach from toy to child. The bill, said the fund’s director of program and policy, Janet Nudelman, is “a first, important step toward reforming the way chemicals are regulated in this country.”

Ami Gadhia of Consumers Union said infants are also exposed to phthalates through teethers and health care products. While there is no conclusive evidence that the chemical causes health problems in humans, she said a recent study found that mothers reported use of infant lotion, infant powder and shampoo was significantly associated with phthalate urinary concentrations.

But phthalates, said Sharon Kneiss of the American Chemistry Council, “are an important part of our everyday lives. There is no scientific basis for Congress to restrict phthalates from toys and children’s products.”

Under the new third-party testing regimen, a standards organization overseen by the CPSC would set up and run a mandatory protocol that testing labs would have to meet to certify a product. No covered children’s product or toy could be imported without a certification mark.

The negotiators also resolved to make more products now covered by voluntary industry standards subject to mandatory standards. That step added several potential toy hazards, including goods containing small magnets that were included in products recalled last year, subject to third-party testing requirements.

Among other provisions, the bill requires the CPSC to adopt safety standards on all-terrain vehicles and close a loophole in which cribs sold secondhand were not subject to the same standards as new cribs.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas cast the only dissenting vote. The failed Republican presidential candidate frequently votes against measures expanding the federal government’s reach.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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