Outside editorial: Fix the CPSC, fast

Posted: Tuesday, March 25, 2008

This editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune:

Last August, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission tagged toys with potentially loose powerful magnets as the No. 1 "hidden home hazard" in America.

The magnets, when they fall from toys, are small enough to be swallowed by curious tots. They're dangerous enough to subsequently connect through layers of body tissue, rip through intestines like a gunshot, and cause severe injury or death. And stray magnets can be difficult for even vigilant parents to spot on a carpet.

All of this was confirmed in the story of 20-month-old Kenny Sweet Jr., the Seattle-area boy who died after swallowing aspirin-size magnets that had fallen loose from older brother Ben's Magnetix building toys set.

After the May 2007 chronicle of Kenny's death by Chicago Tribune reporter Patricia Callahan, toymaker Mega Brands announced that it was clearing store shelves of all but the newest models of Magnetix kits.

But according to the CPSC, Mega Brands had violated an April 2007 recall agreement with the CPSC by relabeling older sets of Magnetix toys. That made it appear as if they were the safest version, even though the CPSC insisted those sets be included in the recall. The CPSC also said the company gave stores confusing directions on which sets were covered by the recall. The Tribune reported Monday that the company had indications that other magnet toys in its lineup - Magna Man action figures, and Magnetix Jr. and Magtastik preschool toys - also were expelling loose magnets.

This week, more than a year after it first learned that magnets were coming loose from these products, Mega Brands issued yet another massive recall, this one covering 2.4 million toys. On offer for consumers: replacement sets - some of which would replace the replacement sets the company had distributed in previous recalls.

What took so long? Negotiations between the company and the CPSC over details of the latest recall. Under current statute, the CPSC has no easy way to order a recall without negotiating every word with the company involved. This despite the fact that there were 44 reports of magnets falling loose from the most recently recalled toys. One child had to have a stray magnet removed from his nasal cavity. Another had a magnet retrieved from his mouth.

Company spokesman Harold Chizick told the Tribune the delay was due to the company's desire to get things right. Initially, Mega Brands wanted to recall only certain pieces from its toy kits. Ultimately, the company decided to recall entire sets. "We wanted to avoid confusion," Chizick said. "Telling the consumer that certain parts were good and certain parts needed to be returned, it was just too confusing."

Why was a part-by-part recall even up for debate? Chizick's comment about that being "just too confusing" is correct but obvious.

The Tribune's series also has prompted a closer look at the CPSC, a sometimes-muzzled watchdog, by federal lawmakers and consumers alike.

Both houses of Congress have passed bills that would reform the CPSC by increasing its funding and staffing. Next stop: a Capitol Hill conference committee.

Our belief is that the final bill must include creation of a public Internet database, where citizens can search for information about potentially dangerous products. The Senate bill calls for such a database; the House bill calls merely for studying the issue. That's not enough. As the Magnetix case shows, while known problems linger, children remain in danger.

A CPSC that can't alert parents to dangerous products - or even make public consumer complaints about a potentially dangerous product - needs to be overhauled.

And fast.

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