What to Do About Dangerous Consumer Products

As the recent problems with tainted food, drugs, toys, and other consumer products have made clear, our regulatory system has a lot of holes in it. Part of the problem is the current reluctance of agency appointees to do anything that might burden the industries in question, but that’s not the whole story. It’s also the case that the laws we rely on to protect us from dangerous products simply aren’t strong enough.

The Lowell Center for Sustainable Production (at the University of Massachusetts Lowell) has just issued two reports that pinpoint the policy problems we’re facing and offer suggestions for how to fix them.

The Presumption of Safety: Limits of Federal Policies on Toxic Substances in Consumer Products identifies these four limitations in the current regulatory system:

Voluntary Standards. Consumer product safety laws oblige the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to rely largely on voluntary consumer product standards developed by industry groups, and leave the CPSC with limited capacity to ensure compliance with these voluntary standards and guidelines. Recent recalls suggest that voluntary assurances of product safety may not always work in practice, and that voluntary standards are not comprehensive.1 Further, it is unclear whether product liability for uncertain chemical risks is a strong enough incentive for product safety.

Limited Government Capacity. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is charged with assuring the safety of over 15,000 types of products; however it operates with half of its original budget and too limited a staff to cover areas such as toxic chemical hazards.

Burdensome, Reactive Laws. Current laws and policies regulating toxic chemicals in toys and consumer products are burdensome and reactive in nature. The main federal law regulating the manufacture and use of chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act, requires companies to provide minimal data on chemical use, exposure and toxicity and provides limited authority for the Environmental Protection Agency to take swift action to address chemical hazards. To regulate or restrict hazardous chemicals in toys or consumer products, the CPSC has to undergo a lengthy, costly, and time consuming process that must balance health protective actions with costs to industry. Thus, few chemicals are actually regulated in consumer products.

Limited testing and safety requirements. Current laws do not require consumer product and toy manufacturers to test products for most chemical hazards. This problem is compounded by the fact that there is a significant lack of toxicity information available for many chemicals in commerce. Currently, a lack of toxicity information for the chemicals used in consumer products and toys is effectively treated as evidence of safety. Rather than ensuring the health and safety of consumers in the face of uncertainty by making precautionary decisions about chemicals for which there is some evidence of harm, manufacturers are given the benefit of the doubt. Further, there is no pre-market approval process for the use of chemicals in consumer products or toys which would ensure their safety.

Although the federal government has been unable or unwilling to do much about dangerous consumer products, some states have taken steps to pass their own laws prohibiting the consumer-product use of certain harmful chemicals. The other Lowell Center report that’s just been released, Options for State Chemicals Policy Reform: A Resource Guide, gives state-level “tools and examples of strategies to gather and share information through supply chains; facilitate more effective prioritization and action on chemicals; promote assessment and application of safer alternatives to problematic chemicals; and support research and development of products based on green chemistry.”

If all the news stories about dangerous consumer products have you wondering what can be done, check out these reports and others for forward-thinking, practical solutions.

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