The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has its hands full. Overfull, to hear some tell it. The federal regulatory agency is tasked with keeping unsafe products—including children's toys—off store shelves.
So it's a bit alarming that today the CPSC is looking to slim down. The agency recently asked for ideas on how it can "potentially reduce burdens and costs of its existing rules, regulations, or practices without harming consumers." Seriously—they posed the question to the public in the Federal Register in June 2017. Share your ideas with them by Sept. 30, 2017 to have a say.
If the CPSC has to get by on drastically reduced funding, that could leave protection for consumers in the hands of the courts. John Risvold is a trial lawyer with the Collins Law Firm in Naperville, Illinois. It takes more than regulations to protect everyone, he suggests.
"Often the regulatory agencies are underfunded or so lax, or propped up by the companies they're supposed to regulate, that it is left to the courts and trial lawyers to act as the regulatory body to ensure consumer safety," Risvold says.
Besides, product recalls and new regulations frequently stem from product-related injuries. Products can't be recalled until they're determined to be dangerous—and that usually means someone got hurt.
"The Consumer Product Safety Commission is a helpful entity in terms of removing dangerous products from the market," Risvold says. "But they cannot undo the damage caused by having the dangerous products in the market in the first place."
Risvold tells HealthyWay the threat of lawsuits in defense of injured consumers provides a spur for companies to think about product safety before an injury occurs.
Unfortunately, that threat wasn't enough to deter the manufacturers of these toys, which the CPSC had to step in to ban:
1. Lawn Darts
This is a sad story, just to warn you. In 1997, a 7-year-old boy from Elkhart, Indiana was playing with an old set of lawn darts—heavy plastic and metal projectiles designed to be thrown at targets—and, somehow, one of the darts poked him through the skull, injuring his brain.
That prompted the CPSC to issue a new warning. Here's the thing, though. Lawn darts were already banned. The CPSC pulled them from the market on Dec. 19, 1988, after three kids had already lost their lives to the toys.
"CPSC banned lawn darts in 1988, but some of these dangerous products may still be in garages, basements, or second-hand stores," then-CPSC Chair Ann Brown said in the 1997 press release. "Parents should destroy these banned lawn darts immediately."
There's bound to be an online black market for these things, but we suggest you don't go looking.
Kids eat stuff whether it's food or not. That's the key fact that the manufacturers of Buckyballs and Buckycubes forgot.
To be fair, these sets of small, powerful magnets were marketed to adults, not children. But you try keeping a bite-sized nugget out of a 3-year-old's mouth. It isn't easy.
The first Buckyball would go down just fine. It'd be just like eating a small stone (not that we recommend that, either). The trouble comes when a child eats two or more of these powerful magnets.
"From 2009 to the present, the CPSC has received numerous incident reports of ingestions of Buckyballs and Buckycubes," the CPSC wrote in 2015. "When two or more high-powered magnets are swallowed, they can attract to one another through the stomach and intestinal walls, resulting in serious injuries…"
As a result, the CPSC recalled the products on July 17, 2014. Consumers were eligible for a refund if they returned these dangerous novelties by January 17, 2015. If you have Buckyballs, you should destroy them, but we're afraid the time limit on refunds has passed.
3. Inflatable Baby Floats
Corporate leadership at Aqua-Leisure Industries did just the right thing when they heard reports that the bottom of their inflatable boats for babies were tearing out and dumping kids into the pool. They issued a voluntary recall and worked with the CPSC to remove their products from shelves until they could fix the manufacturing flaw.
All in all, the company got 31 reports of dunked babies, but fortunately no one was injured.
4. Aqua Dots
In 2007, a new crafting toy hit the market. Aqua Dots were multicolored little beads coated with a chemical that would make them stick together when spritzed with water. The idea was that kids could use them to create miniature mosaics.
There were just two problems: The coating was highly toxic, and, as already mentioned in No. 2 on this list, kids love to eat small non-food items.
The CPSC began to get reports of children swallowing Aqua Dots and then coming down with dizziness, vomiting, and, in at least two terrifying instances, brief comas. The CPSC issued the recall, and that was it for Aqua Dots.
5. Little Live Pet Lil' Frogs
These adorable battery-powered buddies represent one of the CPSC's latest attempts to work with a toy manufacturer to recall a dangerous item. Lil' Frogs aren't quite as famous as lawn darts, of course, but the hazard is so strange we had to include them on this list.
According to the CPSC announcement of the recall, "When the button batteries are removed from the toy frogs, the battery's cap can become a projectile and the battery's chemicals can leak, posing chemical and injury hazards."
Leaky batteries we understand. But what's with that "projectile" battery cap?
6. Powerboard Hoverboards
Remember when "hoverboards" started spontaneously combusting? Yeah, that led to more than one product recall. One company, Hoverboard LLC, quickly issued its own recall, which the CPSC picked up and amplified after hearing reports of their products sparking and smoking. Fortunately, nobody was injured.
One person reported property damage. But no one reported disappointment that these things don't work like Marty McFly's hoverboard in Back to the Future—at least not that we know of, and they definitely should have.
7. Almost 1 Million Toys by Mattel
In 2007, leading toy company Mattel issued a recall for nearly 1 million toys of 83 different types. The harmful playthings included everything from Sesame Street and Nickelodeon characters to a Dora the Explorer backpack and Elmos and Cookie monsters that giggled when you shook them.
The problem? Mattel's manufacturing plant in China slathered the toys in lead paint. Actually, though, this case could show us a way forward on the off chance that the CPSC gets so lean that it can't catch unsafe children's products this holiday season.
Here's what we mean:
Challenging Manufacturers of Dangerous Toys Outside the CPSC
Risvold has overseen class action lawsuits of the type leveled against Mattel, and he believes that such legal instruments are a crucial part of protecting consumers from unsafe products.
"I can attest that many toys that are taken off of the market that are dangerous are because of trial lawyers acting on behalf of the injured to force a company to put people over profits," Risvold says. "The more recent example was the class action lawsuit against Mattel."
But it's hard to deny that federal regulations are also a crucial part of the nation's patchwork of defense against unsafe products. The CPSC had notable success finding and eliminating unsafe children's products during the recent years.
The agency recalled more than 170 toys back in 2008. By 2016, that number was down to just 25. Only one of these contained lead paint, which had been an enduring problem in the past. Around the same time, toy-induced loss of life among children younger than 15 declined by 10 kids per year, from 19 in 2010 to just nine in 2013.
The CPSC has also gone to great lengths to prevent unsafe toys from reaching American markets. In 2014, that meant partnering with Health Canada and the Consumer Protection Agency of the United Mexican States to inspect inbound holiday-season toys on the North American continent.
Fast-forward to today, when a recent headline from The Hill reads, "Consumer safety commission looks to reduce regulatory burdens."
If the CPSC decides that the best way to "reduce burdens and costs" is to stop going after problematic toys, keeping our kids safe will be left to lawyers like Risvold, manufacturers, and parents themselves. This brings us back to the role of the courts, which could begin to expand in the near future.
"The lack of regulatory oversight on the production and supply side, the front-end regulation, allows for dangerous products to get to market, injure consumers, only to be recalled after the damage is done," Risvold says.
"This again is another area where trial lawyers seeking compensation for victims helps force companies to consider safety on the front end."
Anyway, who knows? Maybe the CPSC will find a way to survive and thrive in an era of shrinking government. If there's one thing we should be able to agree on, after all, it's that the safety of our children is more important than politics.