CPSC database turns one – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director 

March 11, 2012 marks the first anniversary of the launch of the Consumer Product Safety Commission database, which can be found at www.SaferProducts.gov.

I recently gave the consumer perspective on the database at the International Consumer Product Health and Safety Organization (ICPHSO) annual meeting in Florida. The creation of the safety database has been a longstanding interest of mine and of other consumer advocates. In 2007, while working at Consumers Union, I testified before the Senate asking that consumers have access to critical information about products that have caused injury or harm.

We said then that consumers need and want safety information when making an important purchase. Whether it be buying a car, lawn mower, or items for a baby, consumers want the benefit of information about a certain product’s safety record. The database was finally authorized by Congress and I believe it is one of the most important consumer tools to emerge from Washington in several years.  A lot of work goes towards ensuring the database is as accurate as possible. When consumers lodge a complaint, the CPSC gives the named manufacturer 10 days to respond before the incident is made public. Consumers also have to provide specific information about the product and the information is then screened by CPSC for accuracy.

How is the database working for consumers? Well, there have been 6,300 incidents posted in less than one year. That tells me that the database has been a great success, despite an effort by some manufacturers and their supporters in Congress to shut it down. For example, Representative Joann Emerson, a Republican of Missouri who sits on the House Appropriations committee, said about the database: “Funding should go for other priorities of the agency before being spent on a poor and inaccurate resource for consumers.”

With all due respect, I beg to differ with the Congresswoman. Let’s look at the data on inaccuracies- of the 1,600 reports now included in the database, only 194 were found to contain inaccurate information, most often because the consumer mistakenly named the wrong manufacturer or model number of the product and CPSC’s Communications Director, Scott Wolfson said that most of these mistakes are “easily corrected.” In fact, there’s been several analyses of the database. An analysis from the House Commerce Committee Democratic staff last June contained these findings:

  • Only a few months after it was launched, the database had more than 1,600 incident reports from consumers, health care professionals, and public safety officials, 1/3 of those reports involved deaths or injuries.
  • 11 incidents reports were of fatalities – infants dying in cribs and playpens, and teenagers and adults killed riding ATVs.
  • The database contained 483 reports of incidents that resulted in injuries, including to children suffering amputations when their fingers got trapped in the hinges of strollers with the stroller make and model provided so other consumers can be aware of the problem.
  • Many other reports were of product defects that could cause injury – a baby gate whose hinges broke and fell down the stairs, a hair dryer that sparked when a Mom was drying her daughter’s hair, front loading washing machine that burned the clothes, and electronics that began overheating and smoking with normal use.

Kids and Cars Analysis:

Another analysis from the nonprofit group Kids in Danger that has done so much excellent work on product safety and children also analyzed 2,433 entries on the database from April 1 to August 1, finding that:

  • 20% of the reports involved injuries to children.
  • 14% of the reports involved recalled products, telling us we need to do a better job of getting them out of the marketplace
  • Product failures – like Pogo sticks coming apart or improperly constructed trampolines were very much in evidence.

Then the CPSC itself has its own analysis. As for the accuracy of the information in the database, the CPSC’s analysis shows that 84 percent of 6,300 reports include the model and serial numbers. Eighty-two percent of people who filed reports also allowed their contact information to be passed on to the manufacturing company, allowing the company to address their complaints.

I think these numbers demonstrate the overwhelming success of the website. Why? Because it is doing exactly what Congress intended it to do and doing so with a lot of specificity. And it is giving consumers who encounter dangerous products a place to go to help warn other consumers so they don’t get injured.

Let me add that what goes onto the website is very carefully screened by CPSC: consumers can’t just post any old piece of information. They need to provide a description of the product or substance, the name of the manufacturer, they must describe the death, injury or illness caused by the product, and they must provide a date when the incident occurred.  Then upon filing, the consumer must say who they are – consumer, a health care professional etc, provide their name and address, and verify that the report is accurate.

Consumers are offering very detailed and very helpful reports of their interactions with products, information that is useful to consumers and manufacturers alike. One mother found her son’s head wedged under a baby bumper – the manufacturer of the bumper refused her a refund since she hadn’t bought it from them directly. Another found a bottom tubular rail of a crib had collapsed. The manufacturer’s website was down so she couldn’t report it to them. One grandmother bought a crib and tried to put it together but it lacked an important part. When she called the manufacturer they said they knew there was a problem and would send her the part.

And I think the staff at the CPSC have done a marvelous job in designing the website – including 10 days to respond a posting, CSPC has provided more than due process to manufacturers and retailers who wish to comment, respond or defend their product.

Once again, consumer advocates believe the database has provided an invaluable tool for consumers and to consumers’ great  credit, they have more than risen to the occasion. There has long been a demand for this kind of place to share information and I’m proud of consumers for their many responses.

To the manufacturers who are seeing defunding of the database, and your supporters in Congress  – we ask you to resist the urge to shoot the messenger.  A far better approach would be to embrace the database, review it daily, and find out where the hazards are. A quick response and a fix of the hazard could prevent lawsuits and most importantly, you’ll be demonstrating that your first priority is to protect the health and safety of the customers that buy your products and keep you in business!