CPSIA: The children’s product safety “crisis” that wasn’t

by Walter Olson on February 4, 2009

Rick Woldenberg has been looking into it:

It’s certainly true that children have been checking books out of libraries for many, many years with only paper cuts to show for their reckless behavior. And thrift stores have sold children’s clothing and strollers for years without incident, but apparently no one knew the “dangers” that lurked within. Indeed, all of these items have been considered safe until February 10, when magically they will become unsafe unless proven otherwise.

According to reports from the field, zippers and snaps on kids’ garments are among the components most likely to flunk the new CPSIA standards. In all probability, millions of existing, already sold garments would flunk for similar reasons. Yet have CPSIA advocates pointed to even a single instance in which an American child has been poisoned by garment zippers or snaps? Could this be because kids do not as a rule detach and eat zippers and snaps? “Why aren’t we seeing many claims of injury from all the dangerous children’s products still legally available in the market?” Woldenberg asks. “Shouldn’t we be seeing outrageous injury statistics right now, currently”?

To put it differently, advocates seem to have taken a few genuine instances of injury from distinctive, atypical products (lead jewelry, powerful ball magnets) and used them to manufacture an imaginary crisis in the safety of children’s products generally. But there was never any general crisis of children’s product safety.

Following up, as part of a more general critique of CPSIA advocates’ misrepresentations — which should be read in its entirety, as it makes many other valuable points — Woldenberg analyzes the purportedly alarming data on product recalls involving children (Excel spreadsheet). Separately, Wacky Hermit has been looking at the recall figures as well. She concludes:

Of the 63 recalls that would have been prevented by CPSIA, only 1 resulted in an injury (a child ingested lead paint from a crib and had elevated blood levels of lead). This means that had CPSIA been in place for 2008, one child would have been helped.*

If we’re going to extrapolate one or a handful of injuries into a supposed national crisis, we might as well deduce a “children’s bathing crisis” from a bathtub drowning, a “children’s kitchen crisis” from a stovetop scalding or a “children’s transportation crisis” from a highway smashup. Common Room has a wrap-up which also should be read in full:

the majority of recalls (by an astronomical number) are not because a item has actually harmed anybody, but because the CPSC or the company determine that perhaps a particular item might possibly harm a child- and, while it flies against our intuitive, emotional reaction to the news that an item has lead, not all lead products are the same. The lead in a kid’s mini-bike tire valve is not as dangerous as the lead in paint on a toddler’s block. … The CPSIA treats real, imagined, and nonexistent threats exactly the same, and that is not sound policy.

*More: Jennifer Taggart writes to say that looking at past recalls does not make it possible to assess the law’s full effect since most items covered by CPSIA had not been subject to federal regulation (except under general catchall provisions). So the generalization quoted above should probably have included some limiting language to that effect.

{ 4 comments }

1 Xmas 02.04.09 at 3:23 pm

Woah, font size change!

2 Gale 02.05.09 at 11:23 am

I think part of the reason for the fear and hysteria about the lead recalls in 2008 is not so much that things were recalled–but the companies they were being recalled from. Any parent who has watched for recalls knows will notice a lot of them coming from cheap, dollar store items (at least I have–and I’m talking previous to 2008). But the recalls due to lead paint in Thomas and Friends and Fisher Price toys broke down a lot of parents comfort that if they bought something “quality” it would be safe. Thomas the Train doesn’t fit the “cheap toy” mold–it’s expensive, wood, and comes with a life-time garuntee…which I think made parents like me feel “safe” about it, like we were buying something really quality for our children. Same with Fisher Price. Though not the same type of toy, they have a real reputation for being safe. Heck, we played with Fisher Price when we were kids. So I think when these two came up for recalls it made parents feel like no toy was safe. I know of parents who had these toys and payed to get their kids tested for lead poisoning… I know one mom who sent back her recalled toy, tested her child for lead poisoning, received the replacement train (and they sent an extra train I guess as a “sorry about this” effort) and then THAT train came up for recall, and so the whole process started again. So it wasn’t a small issue for us. It’s good to know that the actual harm to children was small, though.

Anyways, thanks for your informative blog. I am glad that they there has been some headway towards amending this law. While I think the law should be reasonable…I don’t think that a little more scrutiny of companies is uncalled for altogether. I think actually if they can come up with a law that is reasonable and well thought out it will make people feel more safe, and that will be good for the businesses as well as consumers. But if they do it wrong, like it seemed like they were heading for…well, yeah, it could be a mess.

Oh…and speaking of laws and recalls, China is EXECUTING several people involved in the melamine in milk there. Wonder what affect THAT will have on the safety of products coming from China.

3 Gale 02.05.09 at 11:25 am

PS: Sorry about all the typos. I should have edited before I posted.

4 Cousin Dave 02.17.09 at 2:03 pm

“we might as well deduce a “children’s bathing crisis” from a bathtub drowning, “…

Don’t give the CPSC any ideas. Remeber their infamous attempt to force regulations that would have required mop buckets be incapable of holding water?

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