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Defective: Congressional Democrats say it’s time to lift the veil of secrecy on potentially harmful products in Americans’ homes

Proposed law would strengthen CPSC recall power
Published: Feb. 14, 2022 at 6:20 PM EST
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InvestigateTV - Washington, D.C. - Federal lawmakers have heard for decades that the secrecy baked into a consumer-protection law has led to deaths and injuries but have failed to act.

Consumer advocates say the time is long past due to lift the cloak of secrecy at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Babies have suffocated in nursing pillows, as the agency had to remained silent. Toddlers have been crushed by dressers, as the CPSC could only issue generic warnings about the hazards of furniture tip overs.

Senior citizens, trapped between bed rails and mattresses, have died of asphyxiation, yet the agency had to hold its tongue.

The reason: it’s nearly impossible for the commission to warn the public without manufacturer consent.

“The Consumer Product Safety Commission is like a toothless watchdog that is straitjacketed by the lack of enforcement power even to warn, or to disclose or to highlight, defects so that consumers can protect themselves,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, told InvestigateTV. “It can’t even warn and disclose and highlight defects when they’re a matter of life and death.”

The issue rests with a provision in the Consumer Product Safety Act, known as section 6(b), which requires the agency to receive approval from manufacturers before releasing any information about a specific product.

The CPSC regulates some 15,000 types of everyday products in Americans’ homes from candles to coffee pots to cribs.

But when a defect or danger is detected, the CPSC generally can’t warn the public without the manufacturers’ consent.

By 2018, for example, CPSC knew that 15 babies had died while in Fisher-Price’s Rock n’ Play inclined sleeper. But Section 6(b) prevented the agency from alerting the public.

“If I had known about the dangers of the Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play sleeper even minutes before Emma was placed in it, I would still have my daughter today,” Erika Richter told members of Congress at a hearing last June.

Her daughter died in 2018, at a time when the CPSC was aware of at least a dozen deaths, internal emails obtained in a Congressional report show.

Fisher-Price recalled the Rock’ n Play in April 2019. The death toll associated with the sleeper exceeds 90, according to Congressional testimony.

“Those deaths were preventable,” Blumenthal said. “CPSC should have had the ability to warn and recall. That’s what our legislation would do.”

Democrats in both the House and the Senate have introduced bills to strip Section 6(b) out of the Consumer Product Safety Act.

“When we say to consumers, ‘Consumer beware,’ if you don’t have the information, and you don’t have the power of government behind you, it doesn’t mean a darn thing,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who is sponsoring the bill in the House to eliminate Section 6(b).

Blumenthal is one of the sponsors of the Sunshine in Product Safety Act on the Senate side.

The proposed law would give the CPSC the power to issue warnings and recalls “without giving the industry (or) the manufacturer a virtual veto over how and when and even whether there is disclosure,” he said. “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

In 2008, when Congress approved the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act to force mandatory safety standards for infant and juvenile products, among other things, lawmakers at the time stripped out a provision that would have eliminated section 6(b) then.

Fourteen years later, section 6(b) still serves as a barrier to public awareness of potential hazards at home.

“That’s not right, that we should prevent information, basic information, sometimes life and death information to get to consumers,” Schakowsky said.

Thus far, not a single Republican lawmaker has signed onto either bill proposed in the House or the Senate.

Rep. Grant Grothman, a Republican from Wisconsin, originally agreed to an interview with InvestigateTV but later said he needed to postpone. A new date was not set. Last year, Grothman got a Fisher-Price executive to admit for the first time publicly the number of deaths potentially associated with the Rock n’ Play: 97 . But the executive, Chuck Scothon, added that the company was continuing to investigate those reports to determine if they did actually involve its product.

Blumenthal and Schakowsky said the safety of American consumers should not be a partisan issue.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Schakowsky said that consumers need to do their part, too.

“I think we have to make sure that we do mobilize people to put pressure on their own members of Congress to understand that there is a remedy to these things. It’s not just some act of nature, that there is something we can do about these unnecessary deaths and injuries, and to mobilize them to demand some action,” she said. “I think the most compelling thing is when a member of Congress hears from their own constituents. And that can change the dynamic entirely.”