Members of the media are gravely enumerating all the challenging circumstances that President-Elect Obama faces (financial collapse, two wars, global climate disruption, etc), so it’s worth noting that this is also a tough time for product safety. Recent problems with lead in children’s toys, contaminated food, and tainted drugs have demonstrated how many holes exist in our systems for ensuring product safety, and China’s melamine problem highlights how problematic it can be to rely on countries whose safety mechanisms are even weaker.

Here’s a quick review of where things stand:

The Consumer Product Safety Commission  got expanded powers – some of which it’s already put to good use – and additional money from major legislation passed in August. Replacing the current CPSC chair, who said she’d rather not have that much additional muscle, with someone who’s more committed to consumer safety should help put those resources to good use.

Earlier this year, Congress essentially pressured the FDA into admitting that it needed more money (under a Bush administration rule federal employees can’t criticize the president’s budget), and gave it an additional $300 million. The FDA has announced plans to open offices in China, but the promised money and the new plans are not yet at the scale needed to tackle today’s challenges. The New York Times’ Gardiner Harris gives an excellent overview of the grim situation in this recent article.

DC-area folks who follow product-safety issues might be interested in a symposium on dangerous products at the American University Washington College of Law on Friday, November 14th. It involves presentations entitled “The Social Costs of Dangerous Products: An Empirical Investigation” and “Unavailable and Unaccountable: A Free Ride for Foreign Manufacturers of Defective Goods,” as well as two panel discussions, one featuring our own David Michaels. Registration is free (or $35 for those who want CLE credit); go to American University’s website for more information or to register.

Product safety is easy to forget when there are so many pressing issues demanding immediate attention. But the new Congress and the Obama administration should spend some time thinking about strengthening our product-safety systems – preferably before another person dies from a faulty crib, a contaminated drug, or a tainted salad.