Leaders of the agency responsible for protecting consumers from faulty products said Wednesday that Congress should increase their budget and power in the wake of huge recalls of lead-contaminated toys.
The testimony from Consumer Product Safety Commission officials came as Mattel Inc., producer of 1.5 million of the 13.2 million toys recalled in the past month, said its tests found lead levels in paint in recalled toys as high as 200 times the accepted safety ceiling — 110,000 parts per million versus 600.
The company's chairman and chief executive, Robert A. Eckert, told lawmakers that a reading of 10,000 parts per million was typical in Mattel's tests of the tainted toys.
He apologized for the recalls, saying they "should never have happened, especially at Mattel. Our standards were ignored and our rules were broken. We were let down and we let you down."
Mattel has fired several manufacturers and is beginning to inspect toys before, during and after paint applications, Eckert said. He said he plans to visit China soon to check on the inspections.
One of the agency's commissioners said "we are all to blame" for a system that allowed children to be exposed to lead-tainted toys. That includes "those who stood by and quietly acquiesced while the commission was being reduced to a weakened regulator," said Thomas H. Moore, in the first of two days of hearings before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee.
Moore thanked lawmakers for rejecting a Bush administration budget proposal that would have required cutting full-time staff by 19 people. He urged Congress to pass legislation that would give the agency better tools to protect consumers from product safety hazards.
"Our small agency has been ignored by the Congress and the public for way too long," said the acting chairman, Nancy A. Nord. "Our laboratory desperately needs to be modernized."
The agency was founded in 1973 with a staff of about 800. It now employs about half that number. Moore said it has about 15 people, of a total field investigative staff of fewer than 90, to visit ports of entry to inspect the more than 15,000 product types under its jurisdiction.
The commission banned lead paint on toys and children's furniture in 1978, but is not authorized under law to regulate lead in a product unless it may cause "substantial personal injury." When lead is ingested by children, it can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems.
Nord noted that the recalls, mainly of toys manufactured in China, have had the intended purpose of goading the entire toy industry into changing practices to prevent such violations in the future.
It has also inspired the introduction of several bills to increase the authority and budget of the CPSC and better monitor imports from China.
"We must start with the CPSC," said Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., chairman of the House subcommittee overseeing consumer protection. "Is the commission capable of preventing these products from entering state commerce?"
Nord and Moore pointed to an agreement reached with the agency's Chinese counterpart last week. China immediately will put in place a plan to eliminate the use of lead paint on Chinese-made toys exported to the United States.
Several lawmakers said Mattel blocked committee staff members from visiting the company's plants in China and talking to the Hong Kong executives who oversee those facilities.