Science Vs. Politics: the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act’s Impact on Child Safety

Posted May 13, 2009 at 2:31pm

A year after the enactment of sweeping toy safety legislation, it is fair to ask, “Are our children better off?— The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act was supposed to bring rigor and discipline to children’s products. But, in the wake of confounding mandates, confusing standards and unfunded implementation, the answer to the question is one of the few things that is clear. No, our children are not better off. Indeed, new hazards are entering the marketplace as a result of the law’s more shortsighted provisions. In some very real ways, a law that was supposed to make things safer may do just the opposite.[IMGCAP(1)]On Thursday, the House Small Business Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing to examine the challenges businesses face in complying with this law. Businesses’ hardships, especially in this difficult economy, are certainly a topic worthy of attention. But when in comes to the CPSIA, there’s another, more pressing issue at hand: the safety for our children. Part of the legislation included a temporary ban on certain phthalate substances (pronounced “THAL-ate—) used to make plastics more flexible. These materials are commonly used in children’s toys. After repeated testing, one of these phthalates called DINP has been deemed safe by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the National Toxicology Program’s Center for Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction, and the European Union, just to name a few. Those endorsements spark a seemingly obvious question: If every major entity with science on its side has determined a phthalate like DINP to be safe, why does a non-scientific body in the form of the U.S. Congress feel qualified contradicting that body of evidence? The answer is politics. Certain Members of Congress adhere to the precautionary principle — the notion that substances should be considered harmful until proven safe. This misguided approach to protecting consumers can, at times, have the opposite effect. In this case, the temporary ban on DINP could jeopardize the safety of our kids. CPSIA’s temporary ban on DINP is forcing manufacturers to use alternatives. These alternatives have had nowhere near the scientific scrutiny that has been applied to phthalates. In fact, none of the plasticizing alternatives have been tested or approved by a U.S. government agency. Several of these alternatives are made in foreign countries — countries that may have less stringent safety requirements than the United States. The next step in this story is a Congressionally mandated Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel review of certain phthalates and their alternatives. Ironically, the agency charged with running the CHAP study is the Consumer Product Safety Commission — the same agency whose scientists testified against the phthalate ban and said DINP was safe in the first place.As long as DINP is kept off the market as a result of the temporary ban, American children will be exposed to the risks of relatively unknown DINP substitutes. This is what happens when political agendas elbow aside scientific evidence. We can’t change what’s already been done, but we can act responsibly and end this standoff. Congress should call on the CPSC to start the CHAP process as soon as possible. In the ongoing back-and-forth between politics and science, this may be a small fight. Nonetheless, it’s one we must win.Bob Johnson is president of the Child Safety Task Force.